Instead, the president was sitting across from a Lincoln-area radio host as he delivered a monologue on what it means to call someone “Becky.” The host seemed to be paraphrasing entries pulled from the website UrbanDictionary.com: It was slang for a white woman. Some definitions mentioned sex acts.
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Instead, the president was sitting across from a Lincoln-area radio host as he delivered a monologue on what it means to call someone “Becky.” The host seemed to be paraphrasing entries pulled from the website UrbanDictionary.com: It was slang for a white woman. Some definitions mentioned sex acts.
“Some say that goes beyond intimidation,” said the radio host gravely, “that that even borders on hate speech.”
In late August, there had been an incident. A graduate student and members of the English department had confronted a 19-year-old undergraduate over politics. Words were exchanged, including the one the radio host was now trying to define. The whole thing had lasted about 20 minutes and had made barely a ripple on campus. But thanks to a cellphone video, a web-savvy political organization, and a group of suggestible lawmakers, it soon sent shock waves across Nebraska. People were talking about how the changing landscape of American politics posed a threat to them, to their state, and to their children.
President Bounds listened. He knew that powerful political figures in Nebraska were convinced that the public university was transforming into an enemy within, and that they had been looking for evidence to validate their suspicions. He knew they had not come up empty-handed. He knew things would get worse before they got better.
Over the next few months, Nebraska would become the next front of a battle over what kinds of speech should be tolerated on a college campus. It was a case study in the politics of provocation and the increasingly fraught relationship between state universities and the public they serve. What started as a brief verbal clash between two women on a campus plaza ended with a drawn-out standoff between powerful institutions over what a state, and its people, should stand for.
It was less about free speech than how to use free speech to get what you want.
But first, it was about Becky.
Mullen had volunteered as a foot soldier for Turning Point USA, a right-wing group with an ambitious goal of seizing the levers of power on college campuses. Today was recruitment day.
She began calling out to passers-by, asking them how they felt about capitalism and socialism.
Mullen was a shy saleswoman — this was her first day behind the table — but she got a few dozen people to sign up. Some stopped to argue with Mullen about the benefits of government. At one point, a university employee came out of the student union and told her to move her “propaganda” to a nearby area, farther from the building, where the university relegated the street preachers who occasionally came to campus. She refused. The university police were called, but they did not intervene, and Mullen kept signing up recruits.
Most people walked by without a second look.
But not Courtney Lawton.
Lawton, a 46-year-old graduate student in the English department, had heard of Turning Point. The group ran a “Professor Watchlist,” a sort of most-wanted list with the names of professors who have offended Turning Point by saying mean things about Republicans, speaking ill of capitalism, or teaching about white privilege — a concept that Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point, has called “a myth and a lie.”
The watchlist struck Lawton as McCarthyism. Some of the professors on the list had been harassed and threatened. Who was this young woman hawking Turning Point swag on her campus? Lawton sized her up: Blond. Mid-20s, maybe. No Nebraska logos on her clothing, no lanyard clipped to a student ID. Lawton decided the young woman must be an interloper — a paid staffer for Turning Point.
“Oh, hell no,” Lawton remembers thinking. This group could not get a toehold on the Nebraska campus. She wouldn’t let it.
The graduate student left to make a sign: “Just say NO! to neo-Fascism.” She was so agitated that she misspelled “fascism” and had to start over. Sign in hand, she returned to the plaza and stood a few feet from Mullen’s table, facing the union.
Mullen took out her camera to record what was happening, as Turning Point encourages its activists to do. She walked out from behind her table to get a clear shot of Lawton and her sign. Lawton set her jaw and stuck out her middle finger.
“Tabling for Turning Point USA,” narrated Mullen, “Got some — “
“Neo-fascist Becky, right here,” Lawton interrupted.
Her voice echoed across the mostly empty plaza.
Lawton persisted, pacing and calling out to an imagined audience in the style of a carnival barker: “Becky the neo-fascist, right here. Wants to destroy public schools, public universities. Hates DACA kids.”
Eventually a few others joined her on the plaza. One of them was Amanda Gailey, an associate professor of English. Gailey, in the spirit of solidarity with the professors on the group’s “watchlist,” scrawled a sign asking that her name be added, too. When the professor arrived, though, she assumed Mullen was a student, not a professional operative. Gailey decided to hold her sign in silence.
“Fight white nationalism!” cried Lawton, who is white. “Fight white supremacy!” A bicycle whizzed by, tumbleweed-style.
The University of Nebraska at Lincoln is not known as a hotbed of activism. The only time anyone can remember a speaker being blocked from campus was in 2008, when the university disinvited William Ayers, the violent radical leftist turned education scholar, after a wave of angry messages and threats. There have been a couple of Black Lives Matter rallies, and anti-abortion activists have marched here. But Berkeley it is not. Most of the students grew up in the state, which is predominantly red, rural, and governed by a politesse known here as “Nebraska Nice.”
Lawton’s protest was not nice. She began cursing. Mullen wasn’t sure what to do. A university employee walking through the plaza saw the Turning Point table surrounded by three women, one of whom was being “very loud and obnoxious.” The employee, who asked not to be named because she did not want to become a target, says that she did not know what Turning Point was, but that she was struck by the hostility being directed at the student. She mouthed to Mullen, “Are you OK?” The student shook her head.
Mullen thought of her organization as a booster of bedrock American values: freedom, capitalism, small government. She had met some great friends at Turning Point conferences. “I know this is my right to be here,” the employee remembers Mullen saying. The student burst into tears.
Gailey saw Mullen crying. She rolled up her anti-watchlist sign and walked over to the table.
“I told her, ‘No, no, no,’” Mullen says, “because I wasn’t looking to get into it.”
But the professor wasn’t looking for a fight; she was calling a timeout. The university employee, who now stood as a kind of buffer between the professors and the student, remembers Gailey explaining that the protesters, too, had a right to be here. The employee agreed. But Mullen was a student, and now she was crying and shaking. Meanwhile, Lawton was still hollering about Turning Point.
Gailey asked Mullen if she would like to sit down and talk some other time. The student gave her a piece of paper, and Gailey wrote down her email address. “I wanted her to know that I was not there to protest her, and I had no hard feelings toward her,” Gailey says. “I was there to protest her organization.”
Mullen packed up her “Big Government Sucks” gear and left the plaza. The protesters dispersed. Back at her dorm, Mullen went on her phone and sent the photos and videos she had taken of the protesters to her Turning Point friends.
Gailey would never hear from Mullen about sitting down and talking through their disagreement. She did get a note that afternoon from the university employee who had stood with the student. The employee thanked Gailey for trying to talk to Mullen calmly.
Not long after that, Gailey got another message: Turning Point had put her name and face on its website. The professor was being cast as the ringleader of an abusive protest.
“MUST WATCH!” screamed a post from Turning Point. “Radical Professor Amanda Gailey (off camera) At University of Nebraska-Lincoln Leads Public Harassment Of Conservative College Students!”
People soon began writing to Gailey’s bosses at the university, demanding justice. “Professor Gailey took it upon herself to harass this student by belittling her by name and calling her a ‘Fascist,’ ” wrote one Nebraskan. “I was appalled that one of your professors, Amanda Gailey, was so horrible to others who were trying to express conservative views,” wrote another.
“That is Facism [sic] at its finest.”
‘ARE YOU ASHAMED?’
The story is similar in Kansas, Idaho, Montana, Missouri, Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina: Republican strongholds whose big university counties swing far left of the state average. On the political map, college campuses look like infected splinters of liberalism in the hides of otherwise conservative states. Or they are blooming oases of culture and reason surrounded by deserts of jingoism and superstition. It depends on whom you ask.
In the days after her protest became national news in the conservative media, Courtney Lawton’s phone did not stop lighting up. Messages were coming in on email, Facebook, and Twitter. People were saying she was mentally unstable, a harasser, and a hypocrite.
This much was true: Lawton was an activist. She had protested a local effort to out undocumented immigrants. She testified against pro-gun bills in the legislature. As an English teacher, she has taught books that encourage her students to see through the eyes of people navigating race, gender, and identity: a Muslim girl being raised as a boy in colonial Morocco, a mixed-race, mixed-nationality woman struggling to find her place in early-20th-century America and Denmark, a lesbian teenager growing up among British evangelicals. Lawton herself is gay, and she says she talks about that, too, in the classroom.
“I am pretty transparent in the classroom that I champion ideas of multiculturalism and inclusion and social responsibility and social justice,” says Lawton. “And while I don’t expect you to espouse those ideas, I’m pretty clear that that’s how I feel.”
Turning Point could not have designed a better villain. Lawton was not just liberal, she was also given to hyperbole. She says she inherited her style from her father, whom she described as a diehard conservative who frustrated his daughter by never giving an inch. “My dad made talking politics a blood sport,” she says.
Their bouts hardened her fists and left her without much use for tact. She taped a sign that reads “Trump is a fascist” to the front window of her home in Lincoln, and she uses that word to describe much of the modern Republican platform. She calls her critics sexist and ageist for suggesting that a middle-aged woman should know better than to berate a 19-year-old.
She knows she is not the kind of person the state’s Republican leaders want molding the minds of young Nebraskans. If the governor and his allies had their way, says Lawton, the university would scrap the humanities altogether and limit state funding to agricultural science, animal science, medicine, and business — or, as she puts it, “corn, cows, cancer, and capitalism.” Lawton saw a similar agenda beneath Turning Point’s veneer of economic conservatism: They wanted to chase the gender and critical race theorists out of public universities.
In short, the English student saw the stakes of the Becky Incident as existential. And if Mullen or anyone else saw that as an overreaction, that was their problem.
“Oh, please,” she says. “You’re going to align yourself with an organization like this that is inimical to the goals of the university, and you face pushback, and you start crying? Do you really believe in the goals of your organization? Does it — are you ashamed? Are you upset? I don’t care.”
‘I DON’T THINK IT IS SAFE’
Pointing to the “harassing and bullying conduct of university employees,” Kagan suggested buying back some good will with conservative Nebraskans by cutting wasteful programs and personnel.
Among other cuts, he suggested, the university could ax the employees working on diversity programs, the multicultural and LGBT resource centers, women’s studies, ethnic studies, black studies, Latino studies, and international programs, as well as the money it had put aside for recruiting minority professors and employees.
One way or another, it seemed that the university would pay for Lawton’s display. Some of the punchier right-wing media websites, like Breitbart and The Gateway Pundit, wrote about what had happened. Some stories mentioned the earlier incident, where the student-union staffer had tried to get Mullen to move her table into a nearby “free-speech zone.” But Lawton — who, unlike the staffer, had a name and a face — was a more compelling villain.
The image of the arrogant academic scolding a conservative student into silence was a picture some people have conjured for decades. During the “PC wars” of the 1980s and 90s, some universities started trying to protect minority students by banning words and gestures that might alienate anyone based on color, creed, or sexual orientation. The so-called speech codes produced some odd cases, including one at the University of Pennsylvania in which the campus spent the better part of a semester debating whether or not it was racist for a white student to have called a group of black students “water buffalo.”
The speech codes didn’t fare well. There were dozens of lawsuits, and in the end most colleges abandoned them. Still, the codes’ legacy lived on in the idea that college officials were all too eager to put a finger on the scale for progressive causes. Conservatives began seeing themselves as minorities in need of protection.
Mullen’s videos made the rounds at the statehouse, where they caught the attention of Tom Brewer and Steve Erdman, a pair of freshman lawmakers from large, rural districts. They put President Bounds on notice: “This event is being watched very closely by the Unicameral,” wrote Senator Brewer in an email to the university president, one of many later published by the Lincoln Journal Star. Senator Erdman said he would ask the university to fire Gailey and Lawton immediately. “It is time,” he wrote to his colleagues in the legislature, “for someone to defend the young people who are conservative.”
Back at the campus, Donde Plowman, the chief academic officer, was trying to figure out how to defend the university from a wave of public anger. She sought advice from her predecessor, Ellen Weissinger, a health scientist who had spent four decades at Lincoln before retiring earlier that year. “This will pass,” Weissinger reassured Plowman in an email.
Weissinger added something else: Some Nebraska faculty members do use the classroom to push their own politics on students. And it was a problem. “Frankly,” she wrote, “campuses have to become more tolerant and welcoming to conservative students and faculty. This has worried me for years. I don’t think it is ‘safe’ to be conservative on our campus.”
The Becky Incident had been a coup for Turning Point USA, but the email from Weissinger to Plowman, if it ever became public, would be an even more profound exhibit in their case against colleges. It was an admission that the bullying of Katie Mullen by Courtney Lawton was a symptom of something deeper — that what conservatives had been saying about being a persecuted minority on college campuses might be true, even in a state like Nebraska.
‘BIG GOVERNMENT SUCKS’
Turning Point Comes to College
Read reporting by The Chronicle’s Michael Vasquez on how the conservative advocacy group is making inroads on campuses across the country.
By 2016, the organization had emerged as a significant force in campus politics. The Republican party had anointed Charlie Kirk, Turning Point’s baby-faced founder, as a star, in part for his ability to inspire young conservatives like Katie Mullen.
Mullen’s political awakening had come in high school. Listening to Rush Limbaugh with her grandmother, she found herself agreeing with him that Hobby Lobby, a Christian arts-and-crafts retailer, shouldn’t have to pay for its employees’ birth control. Mullen, who lived in Colorado, wrote to her congressman to ask him to block the part of Obamacare that would require companies to do so. She arrived at college in Nebraska as the presidential election was entering the homestretch. Mullen was ambivalent about Donald Trump, but soon she became a fan of Kirk on Twitter, where the now 24-year-old pundit railed against Hillary Clinton and promoted his organization.
“There is a MOVEMENT happening on our campuses,” Kirk wrote that fall, “to fight for FREEDOM not FREE STUFF!”
Mullen was sold. She sent Turning Point an email, asking how she could start a chapter on her campus. Pretty soon she was getting invited to Turning Point conferences and meeting Kirk in person. She met other young conservatives who were just as enthusiastic about politics as she was. While other college students were pledging sororities, Mullen was making friends in a different club — one that was bigger and better-connected than any campus group. She decorated her laptop with GOP-themed stickers (“Ain’t No Party Like the Grand Ole Party,” “I Only Date Republicans”). She tweeted about irrational liberals, the unfortunate Democratic tide in her home state of Colorado, and how America should treat being transgender as a mental illness.
Turning Point’s promotional materials suggest that the group is focused on educating young people about free markets and the perils of regulation, but the group does not shy away from social issues. Its news division regularly highlights stories that reflect poorly on gays, blacks, and undocumented immigrants. Its contributors have written of “LGBT vigilantes” bullying small-business owners for working with the Salvation Army, colleges that give tuition breaks to “illegal alien” students, and “the troubling trend of African-Americans creating fake hate crimes.”
Now people wondered if Mullen herself had been a victim of hate. “Becky” was a racist term, wasn’t it? Sexist, too? The Nebraska sophomore became a conservative cause célèbre. Turning Point sent a regional director to stand with Mullen as she continued to sign up students at her table the next week. The university also took precautions: A pair of uniformed campus police officers looked on from the top of the student-union steps. There were no interruptions.
On a local radio show, Mullen painted a harrowing picture of her encounter with university employees. “For them to stick their middle fingers out and say the F-word and all this stuff, it was completely inappropriate,” she told the host. “To have them out there, right in front of my table, right in front of me, saying all this horrible stuff — that I was the KKK and all this stuff — which, Turning Point, we want to be pro-America! And for them to say that? I mean, yes, to an extent, I was harassed.”
The host asked about Amanda Gailey. The professor, disturbed by how Turning Point had framed her as a ringleader of the harassment, had pleaded her innocence to the local press.
“She was out there with a sign,” said Mullen, “and that’s all I have to say about that.”
The Leadership Institute, a conservative organization that runs the Campus Reform website, sent Mullen a “free-speech ball” — a gigantic beach ball that has become a sort of talisman for the organization. The idea is that students can write provocative phrases all over the ball, then roll it around campus, “free-speech zones” be damned. Mullen and her friends supplied the Sharpies, and people covered the ball in messages. UNL faculty hates free speech. Hillary hates freedom. Feminism is cancer. Fuck antifa terrorists. Fuck DACA. Fuck Trump. Fuck everyone who’s funding this. Do not trust these people. Facts don’t care about your feelings. God Bless America. Steve Halloran, a conservative state senator, walked to campus from the Capitol building and posed for pictures with Mullen. “Thank God for our freedom of speech,” he wrote on the ball.
In September, Mullen testified against a City Council resolution affirming that Lincoln supported diversity and encouraged residents and city employees to stand up to “bullying, discrimination, and hate violence.” When it was her turn to speak, Mullen said she was against racism but feared what might happen if the state began labeling certain people as hateful. After all, Lawton, a state employee, had publicly shamed her by saying that supporting Turning Point was like supporting the Ku Klux Klan.
“Due to my traumatic experience on campus, I worry that I’m going to fall victim to the resolution,” she told the council members. “Based on one person’s definition of race and hate, am I going to have to fear that the police are going to come to my door, for me standing up for freedom?”
As for Lawton, no would-be vigilantes came to her door, although plenty of people got in touch to let her know that she was a menace. Some of their messages were threatening, but the one that disturbed her the most came from the university’s legal counsel. It told her that the executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party had filed an open-records request for Lawton’s emails — specifically any mentioning President Trump or various conservative politicians from Nebraska.
At that point it became clear to Lawton that this wasn’t just about protecting anyone’s free speech. This was about Nebraska’s big-league politicos trying to bury her.
‘BEAT THE HICK OUT OF HER’
“American universities never seem to mind it when conservative students get picked on by extremist liberal professors,” wrote Senator Erdman in an op-ed for his local newspaper, “but as soon as someone spots a banana peel hanging from a tree limb at Ole Miss, all Greek life suddenly comes to a screeching halt.”
Erdman, who declined an interview request, was new to government, having spent most of his adult life as a farmer in Morrill County, some 400 miles west of Lincoln. In 2016 he won an election for an open seat in his district, then landed on the education committee. His main goal was to cut taxes, especially the high property taxes on the farmers in his district, a move that would require the state government to tighten its own belt. During his first legislative session, Erdman called the university “bloated with an abundance of fat available for trimming.”
The thought of Katie Mullen being heckled by academics struck a nerve with the freshman senator. He believed that the values of Nebraska’s public university should reflect the values of the public, and that the people in his district were in Mullen’s corner. What’s more, Senator Erdman was sure that Gailey, not Lawton, was the ringleader of the protest. “Professor Gailey’s protest,” he wrote, “was a premeditated and organized effort to intimidate and shut down Kaitlyn Mullen.”
But it was clear to university officials that wasn’t true. They had watched the security footage and interviewed people who were there. Those sources had confirmed Gailey’s account: that the professor had protested peacefully and tried to talk to the student after she became upset. (The university employee who stood next to Mullen told The Chronicle that she didn’t see Gailey do anything inappropriate. The university denied a request to release the security tape.)
Lawton was a harder case. Her protest, while lawful, was uglier. She may not have prevented Mullen from speaking, technically, but what she had done — publicly shaming her, trashing her organization, calling her a “neo-fascist Becky” — had made Mullen feel that she could no longer speak freely. And those feelings mattered. “We believe that the way you chose to express your views was disrespectful,” wrote Plowman, the chief academic officer, in a letter of censure to Lawton, which the graduate student shared with The Chronicle, “and it in fact was experienced by the student as ‘silencing.’ ”
They let her off with a warning and told her she would not be teaching that fall. They said it was for her own safety, and the safety of her students.
That wasn’t enough for the state lawmakers. They wanted the university to toss Lawton from the classroom because she was a threat to Nebraskan values, not because Nebraskans were a threat to her.
Senator Brewer, the lawmaker who had warned Bounds that he would be watching how the president handled the issue, did not like what he saw. During a radio interview on an Omaha station, Brewer, a retired Army colonel, cursed out the university, forcing a producer to briefly cut his mike.
“The part that just makes you wanna cry is if it’s perceived that those actions had no consequences, then every professor there can do whatever they want,” Brewer said after he gathered himself.
J.L. Spray, a Lincoln lawyer, was suspicious of the university’s leniency. He is an alumnus, a former chairman of the Nebraska GOP, and one of the most well-connected Republicans in the state. He is also the father of a current student.
Spray hated how “liberal-thinking” interlopers seemed to be taking over his beloved university. The way he saw it, the leaders had recruited a bunch of liberal administrators, who were bringing in a lot of left-wing professors, who were trying to get young Nebraskans like his daughter to renounce the values they were raised on — “beat the hick out of her,” he says, “so she’s just a good little liberal like the rest of ’em.”
It was part of something larger Spray saw happening in the state. The liberals were getting bolder, meaner. A group of feminist troublemakers called Betsy Riot had posted signs on the local Boy Scouts headquarters comparing the club to Hitler Youth after President Trump spoke at a national scout gathering. They had thrown fake blood on the office doors of Nebraska’s two U.S. senators after they said they would support the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Spray had a theory that Betsy Riot was being run by the liberals at the public university. At the very least, he thought, Lawton was involved with the collective. (Lawton says she has “nothing to say about that.”) The lawyer filed a public-records request for Plowman’s emails, asking for anything she had sent or received in late August containing the words “Betsy Riot,” “antifa,” “Republican,” “Trump,” “Ricketts,” or “Turning Point USA.”
His records request didn’t turn up any liberal-activism cells.
But he didn’t come up empty-handed.
‘WE’RE DEAD IN THE LEGISLATURE’
Smith thought the meeting was about a recent loss by the football team. In Nebraska, that rates as a genuine public-relations crisis. They met in the chancellor’s office. The president seemed angry.
“We have a disaster,” he said, according to Smith. “We’re dead in the legislature.”
The president opened a folder. Inside was a printed-out email.
I don’t think it’s ‘safe’ to be conservative on our campus.
It was Ellen Weissinger’s note to Plowman. Sent on the last day of August, it just barely had been snagged in the open-records request by Spray, the local lawyer. That meant the university had to hand it over.
Spray says he met with President Bounds, who declined to be interviewed for this story, shortly afterward. “I made no commitment to him, he made no commitment to me,” says Spray, “but he did tell me that he was gonna try to make things better down there.”
The former Republican operative kept the Weissinger email in his back pocket, and Bounds tried to do damage control in the Nebraska press. He went on drive-time radio and talked up all the good things the university was doing — military contracts, cancer research. “The truth of the matter is that we have 16,000 employees and 53,000 students,” he said. And the thousands of faculty members? “Most of them are in their classes, in their laboratories, teaching students, helping them to grow.”
Courtney Lawton’s protest, in other words, was an anomaly.
And yet the president could not make it go away.
Shortly after Senator Halloran visited Katie Mullen and signed her giant beach ball, he resolved to draft a bill, inspired by Mullen, that would protect “free speech” at the University of Nebraska. Among other things, the bill would outlaw protests that “materially and substantially infringe upon the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity.”
Three Nebraska lawmakers had emerged as the most vocal critics of the university in the aftermath of the Becky Incident. There was Erdman, the farmer; Brewer, the soldier; and Halloran, the businessman. All three were new to politics, having surged into office in 2016 by running to the right of their Republican opponents.
Mullen got to know the senators that fall. She spent time at the state Capitol, less than a mile from the campus. On campus she embraced her role as a hall monitor for signs of liberalism. In late October, after a meeting with Chancellor Green at which Mullen learned that Lawton would not be officially disciplined, the sophomore tweeted a photo that she had taken of anti-Trump signs hanging in the windows of the English department: No Ban. No Wall. Resist.
She also tweeted screenshots of the “core values” listed on the English department’s website — a list that includes “affirming diversity” and “pursuing social justice.”
“Are they teaching English,” she tweeted, “or teaching students to be social justice warriors?”
Mullen by then had become a valuable source for the warriors of the conservative movement. Campus Reform, the conservative website, ran a story the next day, stirring another wave of outrage. Chris Baker, a radio host in Omaha, went on a diatribe about the “communist propaganda” on display in the English department, saying that the “indoctrinating” that was surely going on there “should be criminal.”
“I know that some are going to say, ‘Chris, it’s a First Amendment right!’ ” said the radio host. “No, it’s not. You have a First Amendment right on your own time. You don’t have a First Amendment right when you’re working for me, the taxpayer!”
Senator Brewer later went on Baker’s show and framed the English department’s values as a menace. “The biggest single issue, I think, is where they want to stress the social justice,” he said. “I mean, social justice is nothing short of evil. You know, it silences free speech, it creates a toxic environment where students are afraid to share their beliefs and thoughts for fear of reprisal.”
Mullen told the senators about what Chancellor Green had told her about the results of the university’s investigation, which had exonerated Gailey and found insufficient cause to fire Lawton. The senators took the ball and ran with it. They wrote an op-ed, which ran in several Nebraska newspapers, suggesting that the university was letting its people off easy — possibly even withholding evidence. “Can the university’s administration conduct an honest investigation,” they asked, “when a conservative student is involved?”
President Bounds, a Republican himself, suspected that the three senators were out for something other than justice. Still, he had to tread lightly. The charge that colleges are overrun by left-wing activists is a powerful one. Many college presidents see it as one of the main reasons public support for higher education among Republicans has plummeted in recent years. The cost of losing Republican support was especially high in states like Nebraska, where the GOP held the governor’s mansion and two-thirds of the legislature. The state’s higher-education budget was in their hands. But the president had allies in the capitol, too. He decided to take a stand against the freshman senators in an email to the entire legislature. “Is this a sincere effort to look out for the best interests of our young people,” wrote Bounds, “Or is it a personal political agenda?”
The chairman of the education committee was not impressed, He warned the president not to make the mistake of siding with the Amanda Gaileys and Courtney Lawtons of the world.
“Talking down to state senators in an attempt to bully them is not wise,” he wrote in an email. “You will lose the fight.”
‘WE CAN’T DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT’
FIRE, a national nonprofit organization, had been fighting for free speech on college campuses for two decades. The group has filed lawsuits against colleges that it saw as curtailing the rights of students and professors. Its brand is principles over politics; the president is a registered Democrat, but the group’s loyalty to First Amendment jurisprudence regularly puts it in the corner of conservatives, such as Christian student groups that have been denied recognition by their colleges.
It wasn’t “Nebraska Nice,” or even civil, but free speech doesn’t have to be.
Adam Steinbaugh, an investigator for the group, was troubled by what he saw in Nebraska, but not for the reason the senators expected.
Yes, colleges can make and enforce rules for how faculty members should conduct themselves in the classroom, Steinbaugh later explained. Outside the classroom, they can protest however they want within the law. Things might have been different if Mullen had been a student in Lawton’s class, but the women were just two adult strangers expressing their political views in the public square. It wasn’t “Nebraska Nice,” or even civil, but free speech doesn’t have to be.
“Penalizing students or faculty for falling short of this laudable goal,” wrote Steinbaugh in a report, “grants administrators unfettered discretion to censor speech that offends others, or offends administrators, legislators, or distant internet commentators.”
Lawton hadn’t been a perpetrator of sins against free speech, according to FIRE. She had been a victim. Later the organization told the university to reinstate her as an instructor — much to the consternation of the three senators, who responded with an op-ed arguing that the free-speech experts didn’t know what they were talking about.
In a closed-door meeting, campus officials talked about the possibility of quietly returning Lawton to the classroom at the beginning of the next semester. (The graduate student secretly recorded the meeting on her iPhone and shared the recording with The Chronicle.)
“Worst-case scenario,” said Chancellor Green, “Katie Mullen signs up in your class and becomes an agitator in your class.” If that happened, the graduate student said, she would just treat the Turning Point activist like any other student.
It never happened. Lawton’s name appeared in the online course catalog. A screenshot of the listing started making the rounds on social media. Mullen shared it. So did Senator Halloran. The university quickly backtracked.
There were larger forces at play now. In November, Chris Pandolfo, a writer for the website Conservative Review, filed a records request that seemed specifically tailored to capture Ellen Weissinger’s email to Plowman. (In an interview, The Chronicle asked Spray several times if he tipped off Pandolfo to the existence of the email. The former GOP chairman repeatedly declined to answer and then hung up the phone.)
President Bounds decided to get out ahead of the furor by releasing the emails himself, along with an apology and a pledge to study the political climate at the university and bolster its dedication to “free speech” on all its campuses.
Courtney Lawton was called into another meeting with her bosses. (She secretly recorded that meeting, too.) They gave her the bad news: She wouldn’t get to return to the classroom after all.
Chancellor Green leveled with her: The decision wasn’t about her skills as a thinker or teacher, he said. It was just politics.
If we put you back in the classroom, we’re going to continue to suffer damage.
“If we put you back in the classroom, we’re going to continue to suffer damage,” said Green. “And it traces back to the incident. In every case it traces back to the incident, and the behavior in the incident. And we can’t put it to bed. We just can’t. We’ve tried.”
Lawton said she was worried about what would happen if she wasn’t able to get another semester of teaching under her belt before hitting the job market. The chair of the English department wondered aloud about listing himself as the teacher of her courses and then letting Lawton run them like a teaching assistant.
Plowman and Green thought that would be risky.
“Sorry, Courtney,” said the chancellor.
“I wish it was different, but it is what it is. The incident has caused this, and we can’t do anything about it.”
Lawton’s protest had lasted about 20 minutes. She had attacked her political opponent head-on with chanting and cursing, and temporarily drove her off the plaza. Mullen’s counterprotest was longer, quieter, and less direct. But she found an audience among Nebraskans who did not want Lawton getting a toehold at the public university. And so they drove Lawton off the small plot of territory that the graduate student had claimed as her own free-speech zone: the classroom.
“I really like my students,” Lawton told The Chronicle recently. “I really like what I do, and it really bothers me that I’m not in the classroom anymore because of these jerks.”
This time, she was the one who was crying.
‘THERE’S NO COMING BACK’
Mullen was in her element. She took a photo with the former White House aide Sebastian Gorka. She shook Donald Trump Jr.’s hand. On her 20th birthday, in a convention hall filled with 3,000 other young conservatives, the radio personality Joe Walsh asked her to stand for applause. “Guys, I don’t want to get in trouble — I know we live in a time when everybody’s harassing everybody — but guys, she’d be a great catch,” he said. “She’s adorable, and she’s a hard-core conservative, baby. She is a freedom fighter!”
At another event, Charlie Kirk took the stage in a blazer and jeans and gave a lecture on how to “crush” your political enemies in the public square. It’s not about changing their minds, he said, or even listening very carefully to what they have to say. It’s all about winning over the crowd.
“Sometimes the person who wins the debate is not the person with the best argument,” said the Turning Point founder. “It’s the person who is more composed, and who is able to keep a level head, and is able to actually articulate a position — even if the position is a horrible one and makes no sense.”
Back in Nebraska, Senator Halloran introduced his free-speech bill, with Brewer and Erdman signing on as co-sponsors. The university tried to head off the legislation by announcing a new policy that essentially made “Nebraska Nice” a condition of free speech on its campuses. People at the university who want to criticize one another’s politics would have to “do so at a time and place, and in a manner that does not prevent, impede, or obstruct the freedom of others to also exercise their rights to express themselves.”
Lawton and Mullen never spoke to one another again after their initial encounter. Chancellor Green had told the graduate student that he would like to see everyone who was on the plaza that afternoon just sit down and talk it out. No press, no cameras. But the chancellor knew that was unlikely. Civility alone could not solve the problem.
“I think it would really be, unfortunately, a waste of time,” Lawton told the chancellor.
“I just personally wouldn’t feel safe, after what happened,” Mullen told The Chronicle.
The university leaders and the state lawmakers were at an impasse, too. President Bounds saw Lawton’s protest as an aberration; the punishment had fit the crime. But the lawmakers saw the university’s attempt to downplay the incident, along with Ellen Wiessinger’s email to Donde Plowman, as proof that the university had a systemic bias against conservative students, knew about it, and tried to cover it up.
When you do something to cause me to lose faith in your ability to be upright and honest with me, I’m not very forgiving there.
“When you do something to cause me to lose faith in your ability to be upright and honest with me, I’m not very forgiving there,” Senator Brewer had said on the radio. “You burn that bridge and there’s no coming back. And that’s kinda where we’re at right now.”
A compromise would be difficult. The two sides would have to hash it out in public, and hope to win over the crowd.
‘THEY WILL NEVER SILENCE ME’
On a January afternoon, several dozen people gathered in a dimly lit hearing room with green carpeting and chairs covered in faded pink fabric. The hearing was about free speech, but only kind of. The real question at hand was whether the state’s public colleges were hostile to the conservative politics that for years had shaped Nebraska’s identity and way of life.
The first to speak was Senator Halloran, a small man with gray-and-white hair and a serene grimace. He sat in the witness chair upright, his elbows resting on the table, suit jacket bunched at the shoulders.
“We’re trusting our most valuable assets, our children, to the guardianship of those institutions of higher learning,” said Halloran. “With this trust, we have expectations.” The university had not met those expectations, so it was time for Nebraska’s government to intervene.
For the university, the hearing was a home game. More than a dozen people had showed up to testify against the bill. Only three people came to support it. Katie Mullen was not one of them; the sophomore had spent the previous night in Omaha at a Turning Point fund raiser and had stayed an extra day.
Senator Brewer, too, had been at the Turning Point fund raiser. He, Halloran, and Erdman all denied a records request for their correspondence with Turning Point, citing a Nebraska law that says lawmakers — unlike college professors and administrators — do not have to release correspondence relating to the performance of their public duties.
No students from the University of Nebraska testified at the hearing. Senator Halloran told The Chronicle that maybe a half-dozen students had wanted to speak, but they were afraid their professors would dock their grades.
And so the senator was left with a community-college student named Chris, who said that while nobody at his college was preventing him from speaking his mind, he felt bullied when his philosophy teacher compared his logic to that of a Nazi officer; and a young woman named Amber, who said that while she had never been a college student, she was certain Halloran was on to something.
Then there was Joe Cohn, a lawyer from FIRE. A free-speech bill was a win for the organization, no matter its origin, as long as it wasn’t sloppy. FIRE had worked with the senators to make the bill something the organization could support. The lawmakers’ instincts hadn’t been perfect, said Cohn, “but there’s no doubt in my mind they care about advancing free speech generally.”
Courtney Lawton watched from the front row. When her turn came to speak, she kept her seat while a friend of hers, a thin, gray man named Jay Grabow, walked to the witness table. Lawton had watched the committee chair “grilling” Amanda Gailey, who had already testified. She suspected that Senator Erdman, who had not yet said a word, was lying in wait. They would make this about her. So she decided it was not a good idea to speak after all.
Grabow tried to capture Lawton’s bracing righteousness as he read from a statement the graduate student had written: “Republican politicians, including this bill’s introducer, punished me because they don’t believe in free speech. They believe in suppression of dissent.”
Republican politicians, including this bill’s introducer, punished me because they don’t believe in free speech. They believe in suppression of dissent.
Senator Halloran was looking down at some papers in his lap. At “suppression of dissent,” the senator shook his head. Grabow continued. “The very people that claim to be protecting academic freedom and free speech with this bill,” he said, speaking for Lawton, “are the ones who have spent the last five months destroying my life.”
Lawton stared daggers across the room at Halloran.
They spoke such different languages now. Free speech was supposed to be one of the few remaining ideas in American politics that could bring everyone together. But free speech doesn’t resolve political conflicts; it creates them. In Nebraska, everyone had their say. But the more they talked about what had happened on the university plaza that August afternoon, the more reasons they found to distrust one another.
Lawton kept staring, but the senator never looked up. At the witness table, the man speaking in her place tried to make the last line of her testimony sound convincing.
“They will never silence me.”
Dana Chivvis, a producer at This American Life, contributed reporting.