UNL says it’s been unfairly criticized in grad student free speech case

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln complained in a letter this week that a national organization has misinterpreted, misstated and omitted facts in its criticism of the university.

UNL has been chastened by the American Association of University Professors for its handling of the Courtney Lawton case in the past school year.

Lawton was the graduate student-lecturer who belittled an undergraduate for recruiting for the conservative Turning Point USA.

Among other things, the AAUP and UNL disagree on whether Lawton was dismissed. UNL says she wasn’t, the AAUP says she was. The disagreements are primarily ones of nuance, but UNL could get an embarrassing censure from the AAUP this month for its treatment of Lawton.

The AAUP, a powerful academic group that protects academic freedom and professional standards, wrote in April that UNL suspended or dismissed Lawton without a hearing before a faculty committee.

A representative of the AAUP said Thursday the organization had just received UNL’s letter and he wasn’t in position to comment.

Lawton was the key participant on Aug. 25 in the deprecation of a sophomore who sat outside at a table recruiting for the conservative group. Lawton flipped off the student, directed a slur at her and said she “wants to defund public schools,” among other things.

UNL officials initially removed Lawton from the classroom out of what they said was concern for her safety and that of her students.

UNL administrators argue that they paid Lawton through the 2017-18 school year and that she wasn’t dismissed. The AAUP quoted UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green as writing last fall that Lawton “will not teach at our university going forward because of this inappropriate behavior.” She also was forbidden from teaching online courses.

Lawton was assigned to conduct research on academic freedom and free speech at major universities.

The AAUP also contended that UNL gave Lawton no hearing before a panel of faculty members. Such a hearing, the AAUP argued, would require the university to show cause for the dismissal.

The AAUP said UNL offered a different kind of hearing in which Lawton would have the burden of proof. But Green said UNL was willing to “look favorably” upon holding the hearing in such a way that the university assumed the burden of proof. Ultimately, no formal hearing took place.

UNL buckled under political pressure put on it last fall and winter, the AAUP says. Conservative state senators and other people rode UNL for Lawton’s behavior and said it was an example of prejudice by liberal professors against conservative students.

The AAUP wrote: “The conclusion seems inescapable that the basis for Ms. Lawton’s dismissal was related to the political content of her speech and thus may have violated her academic freedom … ”

The organization is expected this month to consider censuring UNL over the matter. An AAUP censure is formal disapproval of an act or decision, generally over academic freedom or tenure violations.

About 55 colleges are on the censure list. Most are small, but the University of Missouri, Louisiana State, Brigham Young and the State University of New York are on it as well.