Following a politicized free speech debacle in the fall that drew much criticism, including a letter from FIRE, the University of Nebraska system has adopted a sweeping policy statement endorsing free expression.
At the Board of Regents meeting last Thursday, the Regents approved a Commitment to Free Expression statement pledging the university to upholding the First Amendment and actively endorsing freedom of expression. With its adoption, the University of Nebraska joins 33 other like-minded institutions that have chosen to prioritize free speech and academic freedom by endorsing a statement modeled after the University of Chicago’s exemplary free speech statement (better known as the “Chicago Statement”).
The Commitment to Free Expression, crafted by stakeholders in the University of Nebraska community, memorializes the university’s promise to promote and protect free speech on its campuses. Echoing the Chicago Statement, the Commitment affirms that the core purpose of a university is enhanced when free expression is encouraged:
Inasmuch as the search for new truths often comes forth only after bringing together differing opinions, the University aims to foster and uphold the capacity of the University community to engage in discourse and deliberation in an effective, responsible and respectful manner. This is critical to the University’s mission.
Further, the Commitment carefully explains the limits of free speech. Although members of the community are encouraged to participate in debate, they must not deprive their fellow community members of the right to listen. The Commitment states:
With this policy, the University is not only promoting a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also protecting that freedom when others attempt to restrict it. It is a careful, deliberative and nuanced balance of interests that the University must strike in order to protect this important right.
In addition to the Commitment to Free Expression, the full policy adopted by the Regents includes a “Guide for Facility Use Plans” and an “Education” programming plan. These additional provisions further solidify the university’s intention to enact policies consistent with the First Amendment. However, at present, the flagship campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln maintains six “yellow light” policies. In FIRE’s speech code rating system, yellow light policies are defined as those that impermissibly restrict student expression and are ripe for administrative abuse.
In light of the Board of Regents’ principled statement on free expression, we are hopeful that this marks a new chapter for free speech at the University of Nebraska. FIRE would welcome the opportunity to work with administrators at the university to improve its speech codes in order to align them with the university’s stated goal of protecting and promoting freedom of expression.