The Liberal-Conservative Dance on Campus Free Speech

Courtney Lawton became the central figure of an hour-long episode of This American Life by making a few derogatory comments on an activist from Turning Point USA, a campus conservative group.

Last August, UNL undergraduate Kaitlyn Mullen set up a table with literature and fliers, in the middle of the University of Nebraska campus at Lincoln. Passing by Mullen’s table, Courtney Lawton, a Ph.D. student, became incensed at the presence of an activist from Turning Point, an organization she regarded as fascist and McCarthyist.

In the past, Turning Point has sparked controversy with their professor “watchlist.” Turning Point compiles the watchlist as a catalog of professors that Turning Point believes misuse their position to propagandize students and/or discriminate against conservatives. Critics see Turning Point’s watchlist as an effort to bully professors for their political and scholarly views.

When she first walked past Mullen’s table, Courtney Lawton looked at Caitlyn Mullen and said: “hi, flashy barbie.” Mullen ignored her. Lawton went to her office and returned with a handmade sign reading, “just say no to neo-fascism.”

Upon returning with her sign, Lawton stood in front of Mullen’s table chanting, “neo-fascist Becky, right here,” “wants to destroy public schools, public universities,” “hates DACA kids.”  Lawton was joined by professor Amanda Gailey, who stood silently with a sign, reading, “Turning Point, please put me on your watchlist.”

Related: A Tide Flowing Toward Free Speech on Campus

Flustered by the chanting, Caitlyn Mullen packed up her things and left but not before making a video of the protest. This footage, of a professor and graduate student bullying a twenty-year-old undergraduate, went viral. Outraged Nebraska state legislators demanded that Lawton is punished, at the very least removed from her position as a Teaching Assistant.

At first, the University censured Lawton but did not remove her from the classroom. Under pressure from angry Republican state legislators, the university relieved her of teaching duties for the fall semester. However, when Lawton’s name appeared in the spring course catalog, Republican lawmakers successfully pressured the school into removing her for the spring semester.

Republican legislators saw Courtney Lawton’s protest as much more sinister than the UNL administrators did. They believed Lawton, and other instructors abused their position to push their political views, punish conservative students, and suppress conservative political activity on campus. These legislators would go on to sponsor “free-speech,” legislation, requiring the University of Nebraska to adopt a campus free-speech policy. That policy would protect the ability of students and faculty to “assemble and engage in a spontaneous expressive activity as long as such activity is not unlawful and does not materially and substantially disrupt the functioning of the campus.”

Courtney Lawton, through a friend, submitted a prepared statement opposing the bill. In Lawton’s view, the bill was an extension of the legislators’ earlier efforts to have her removed from the classroom. Ironically, the organization that helped craft the bill, FIRE, also came to Lawton’s defense, urging the University to reinstate her.

FIRE, short for “The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is firmly non-partisan, though some on the left have criticized the organization due to their relationship with powerful conservative donors.

Yale Lecturer Jim Sleeper wrote a series of opinion pieces attacking FIRE for its role in the controversy surrounding Yale faculty members Nicholas and Erika Christakis. Erika Christakis sparked controversy with an email to students questioning the need for official guidelines on Halloween costumes, writing, “Which is my point. I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others. I can’t defend them any more than you could defend yours.”

By making their lives extremely unpleasant, aggressive student protesters drove the Christakises to resign their positions on the Yale faculty. Partially due to FIRE’s coverage, the protests became national news. Sleeper argued that FIRE’s coverage of these events had a chilling effect on campus speech, by exposing individual protesters to national scrutiny.

While Sleeper correctly notes that the Christakises were not fired, they resigned following an organized campaign of harassment intended to have them removed as “Masters” of Silliman college, a residential unit at Yale. FIRE’s involvement consisted of urging Yale not to acquiesce to the demands of the protesters.

Whatever progressives may think of FIRE or conservatives, both number among the few consistent defenders of the free speech of campus progressives. When Drexel placed far-left professor George Ciccariello-Maher on administrative leave following a series of inflammatory tweets, both FIRE and National Review came to his defense.

Further, it’s unreasonable to expect conservatives to defend a version of campus free speech that includes George Ciccariello-Maher but excludes Erika Christakis. Conservatives cannot be expected to support the free-speech rights of people like Courtney Lawton when left-wing protesters are allowed to exercise a heckler’s veto over conservative speech.

Sleeper may be correct that FIRE receives considerable funding from conservative donors, but without that funding, would FIRE be able to defend the next campus progressive who insults the military, or offends conservative Christians? Whether Sleeper likes it or not, conservative defenders of free speech, including some of FIRE’s donors, are indispensable allies for progressives who care about free speech on campus.

Benjamin R. Cohen

3 thoughts on “The Liberal-Conservative Dance on Campus Free Speech

  1. Free speech is free speech. Outside of the narrow restrictions already in place, it’s all allowable under the constitution. We should not allow bad policy from any political camp become a tit-for-tat justification for censorship.

  2. As a retired UNL professor, I wish to make two points in rebuttal to Mr. Cohen’s blog.
    First, I fully support and endorse efforts such as Watchlist to publicize faculty guilty of abusing their positions to engage in political proselytization in the class room.
    Second, let me point out that Cohen concedes that Lawton–whom I suspect was an English department graduate student-teaching assistant–stood holding a sign and chanting “in front of” Mullen’s table thus impeding Mullen’s ability to convey her own message. Given Lawton’s behavior, I applaud the legislature’s response.

  3. ‘professor Amanda Gailey, who stood silently with a sign, reading, “Turning Point, please put me on your watchlist.” ‘

    This doesn’t sound like bullying by the professor to me. I’m inclined to think the graduate student should have been reinstated unless she is using her classroom improperly (a matter which hasn’t been addressed in anything I’ve read on this). Sure, she was being provocative at the outdoor table. But going out and publicizing an organization that is putting professors on a “watchlist” is also provocative. Some of those professors on the watchlist really are being harassed and bullied. It seems to me if you’re going to throw dirt, others are going to throw dirt back — even if you don’t think that is what you were trying to do.

    Seems like the Nebraska legislators were just looking for a cheap occasion to beat up on the University of Nebraska — rather than look for real classroom abuses and if they are found, trying to do something useful about that. If anyone was bullied here, I think it was the grad student who lost her job, however distasteful I might have found her behavior. I think losing a job is a lot worse than being heckled at a table where one has deliberately set up to be a provocateur.

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