Freedom of speech on college campuses is a topic America needs to discuss, given the successful efforts of students and faculty to silence unpopular viewpoints from coast to coast.
Concerns about how the treatment of University of Nebraska-Lincoln student Kaitlyn Mullen, who was jeered for promoting a conservative organization near the Nebraska Union, should have prompted a teaching moment about the First Amendment and its consequences.
Instead, it’s devolved into a disappointing, over-politicized mess. The recent actions of three state senators who blew Mullen’s situation out of proportion and leveled accusations that UNL harbored systemic bias against conservatives has only exacerbated the turmoil, with university leaders firing back sharply upon learning of the senators’ remarks in a newspaper column.
Rather than having pertinent discussions about the broad nature of the First Amendment and how its protections and exceptions operate, people have been forced to retreat to partisan trenches to take sides and marshal support, either for or against UNL.
This single, isolated incident by no means represents the widespread, universal disdain for conservatives the senators wanted to portray. If there are indeed other cases, one would expect a chorus of those who felt the university had unfairly disrespected their viewpoints. That hasn't materialized.
The senators appear to be on the offensive, marshaling support for conservatives who feel the university doesn’t represent or benefit them. The tired drumbeat they’re echoing — one that plays up baseless fears of liberal elites trying to forcefully indoctrinate students with their beliefs — is being weaponized elsewhere to discredit colleges and slash their budgets.
One only needs to look to Wisconsin and the severe cuts its public institutions of higher learning have been forced to make after $357 million worth of appropriations were cut from 2012-2017. In response, the campuses cut staffing, increased class size and cut academic programs — all things that take a toll on both present and future workforce in the state, including the rural areas these senators represent.
The University of Nebraska system, too, has been on the receiving end of such state funding cuts, addressing a $49 million shortfall that was caused, in part, by decreasing appropriations from the Legislature. The inflammation of tensions surrounding this situation mustn’t be allowed to become even more politicized to a point that further threatens the mission of higher education in Nebraska.
A core aim of a college education is students’ exposure to think critically about ideas that are new or unfamiliar. That should put in perspective what needs to happen, both on campus and at the Capitol — shelving politicized motivations in pursuit of a productive conversation, one that has unfortunately been hijacked by misguided partisanship.