In August, a graduate student and lecturer in the University of Nebraska’s English department called a student who was recruiting for a conservative group a “neo-fascist” and gave her the middle finger.
The lecturer’s contract with the university already will not be renewed when it expires at the end of this year, but that hasn’t stopped GOP state legislators from inflating the incident, which they have decried as a shocking attack on free speech, into a full-fledged crisis. Three Nebraska senators wrote a letter in October questioning whether or not the campus is “hostile towards conservative students.” They also raised concerns about the political bent of the English department, writing, “Does anyone teach English anymore at UNL?” and citing the fact the department “proudly displays several political posters” (several!) like one that reads,“Nothing in this country can mean anything without admitting it was founded on betrayal.”
On Monday, more than 70 University of Nebraska professors signed an open letter claiming Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts (son of the billionaire Joe Ricketts, who recently shut down DNAInfo and Gothamist after they voted to unionize) and “surrogate” state senators close to him are trying to use the incident to stage an “ideological intervention” at the university:
Members of the state legislature strongly tied to Governor Pete Ricketts, including senators Steve Halloran, Steve Erdman, and Tom Brewer, along with staff of anti-public-education nonprofits affiliated with Governor Ricketts, such as School Choice Lincoln, have leveraged a single campus interaction into a sustained attack on the University that has greatly surpassed the scope and import of the initial incident. These senators have called for an end to tenure, demanded further budget cuts, and have written a letter censuring the mission statement and curriculum of the Department of English.
The letter also claims some faculty members who have publicly criticized state legislators have been “aggressively targeted by sweeping open records requests made by the governor’s allies,” including requests to turn over private email addresses and emails.
According to the Lincoln Journal-Star, Republican state Senators Steve Halloran and Steve Erdman also intend to sponsor “free speech legislation” in January that would “create new rules protecting speech and expression in public areas on campus and adopting disciplinary sanctions for anyone who interferes with that free speech and expression.” Similar legislation has been pushed by Republicans in state legislatures across the country as a response to students shutting down controversial speakers like former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannapoulos, a legislative maneuver that free speech advocates say is intended to chill speech from groups like counter-protesters.
The biggest threat facing campuses like UNL isn’t some liberal takeover—despite what conservatives incensed by a single lecturer flipping the bird (gasp!) would have you believe. It’s the corrosive influence of billionaires like the Koch brothers, tech companies, and the military. It’s death threats forcing black professors like Princeton’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor to cancel public appearances. And it comes from conservative politicians exerting their influence over a campus to such an extent that professors feel compelled to write a letter warning against “alarming politicized interventions” without sounding alarmist.