At its annual conference this past weekend in the Washington, D.C., area, the American Association of University Professors voted to censure the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for terminating the teaching duties of graduate student Courtney Lawton following a verbal argument with an undergraduate. The AAUP’s censure comes on the heels of an AAUP investigative report faulting UNL for its handling of Lawton’s case.
The UNL case goes back to August 2017, when Lawton confronted a UNL undergraduate who had set up a table in an outdoor area to recruit members for a prospective chapter of the conservative group, Turning Point USA. When Lawton saw the recruiting effort, she held a demonstration of her own, waving signs and accusing TPUSA, and its recruiter, of “neo-fascism” and “hat[ing] DACA kids.” When the recruiter — who turned out to be a student at the university — began filming Lawton, Lawton displayed the middle finger. Lawton’s criticisms were harsh, but were also well within the bounds of speech protected by the First Amendment.
After video of the dispute went viral, UNL removed Lawton from her teaching duties for alleged “security reasons.”Almost simultaneously with its invocation of Lawton’s security, however, UNL accused her of unprofessional behavior in violation of its “Academic Responsibility” policy. In taking this harder line against Lawton UNL may have been influenced by members of Nebraska’s legislature, several of whom criticized UNL for the incident, with some calling for Lawton to be fired and others accusing it of creating a hostile environment for conservative students.
Like the AAUP, FIRE has been critical of how UNL has handled this matter. We wrote to UNL in December arguing that Lawton’s termination violated her First Amendment rights, and calling for her teaching duties to be reinstated. While the University of Nebraska system has since taken the praiseworthy step of adopting a new Commitment to Free Expression, the AAUP’s censure testifies to the ongoing chilling effect of Lawton’s punishment.