LINCOLN–Free speech controversies erupted this fall when a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student solicited members for a pro-free market, anti-socialist organization and last fall when Cornhusker football players knelt during the National Anthem to protest police brutality.
But the public debates that ensued over First Amendment rights related to those two very different incidents are only the latest in a string of free-speech issues at the University of Nebraska’s flagship, land-grant campus, where controversies in the past century have related to accusations of seditious opposition to World War I, the Ku Klux Klan and the Vietnam War, among other issues.
In Nebraska and across the nation, public universities have been embroiled in debates over the competing interests of intellectual freedom, civil rights and free speech. Some argue that college campuses today are dominated by liberal ideologies that seek to curtail any conservative values or beliefs, punishing those who articulate minority viewpoints. But historically, the issue is far more complex.
Take the case of the university’s encounter with Ku Klux Klan nearly a century ago.
According the Daily Nebraskan reporting in September 1921, the campus was beset by rumors that Nebraska’s Ku Klux Klan branch was seeking to establish a young men’s campus chapter.
Though the local Klan denied any such claims, the stir was significant enough for Chancellor Samuel Avery to publicly denounce the organization and threaten expulsion of any students seeking to participate. Avery cited a policy stating that students may not participate in “any society, fraternity or organization whose membership is secret, concealed or not made public in the usual way.”
While some scholars argue that Avery’s public threats were instrumental in quashing a potential KKK foothold in the state’s public institutions, others say the incident raises First Amendment questions about the university’s authority to ban a secret membership organization.
Just a few years before the KKK uproar, in 1917-1918, eleven university professors and one staff member were tried on sweeping “disloyalty” charges for their open opposition to U.S. involvement in World War I. In fact, some faculty openly supported the German cause prior to U.S. entry in the fall of 1917.
The “Loyalty Trials,” as they are now known, ignited when Professor G.A.W. Luckey said in a public speech that he disdained the thought of having to “die in the trenches of a foreign land in a war that is not of my making and not my war.” The statement seemingly confirmed then-Gov. Keith Neville’s mounting fears that the university was being used to foster anti-American thinking. Similar crackdowns occurred at educational institutions nationwide from 1913-1919.
Though the Nebraska professors were exonerated after 10 days of hearings due to a lack of incriminating evidence, the trials were widely sensationalized in the national press.
The 1960s and ’70s were a notoriously chaotic period on public university campuses. Anti-war protestors set fire to the student union at the University of Kansas in 1970; in Boston, students assembled to burn draft cards, prompting a Supreme Court case; across the nation, hundreds of students were arrested on charges ranging from disturbing the peace to inciting riots.
UNL journalism professor John Bender, a leading First Amendment scholar, remembers what it was like to be an undergraduate at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, at the height of the Vietnam War.
“[Westminster] was a smaller school, and so there weren’t too many demonstrations at first, but I do remember that the war totally divided my fraternity,” Bender said.
“Half of us were objectors, the other half were ROTC members ready to get benefits from military service. It became incredibly tense in the house.”
Bender recalled a palpable shift in student morale in 1970 after four students at Kent State University in Ohio were killed when national guardsmen opened fire into a crowd of war protesters. On that same day, UNL undergraduate student Dan Ladely was helping lead an anti-war demonstration in the UNL campus union.
“At the rally, somebody got up and said what had happened [at Kent State], and we all sort of spontaneously marched to the Selective Service office, where people get drafted, and we all had a confrontation there,” Ladely said. “A few people got arrested there because they refused to leave, but I managed to get most of the people out of the building to organize ourselves again.”
Ladely said that he and the remaining group of anti-war demonstrators then decided to occupy the ROTC building on campus.
“The city police and the National Guard were on the verge of coming down and bashing some heads, but we only found that out after the fact. We actually left on our own accord before they showed up,” Ladely said.
Ladely said the university treated anti-war protestors with an “even-handed” willingness to negotiate, even when they refused to vacate property. Further evidence of Ladely’s goodwill toward the university: he has been the executive director of the Mary Riepma Ross Theatre for more than30 years.
Ladely also spoke highly of pro-war counter protesters. After a long day of back-and forth-exchanges, Ladely described it as commonplace for each group of students to simply put down their pickets and head to the local bars together.
“Nebraskans are just laid-back like that,” he said.
Bender sees that civility as central to a larger story of how campus free speech became so tied to notions of liberal and conservative agendas.
“What I find most disturbing when I compare that era to this time period is that people are so polarized now,” Bender said. “Back then, you had pro-war Democrats, you had anti-war Republicans, everyone was just doing what they thought was best for the country,”
Bender said that the hostile political climate of today, wherein each party seems to draw power from resenting the other, has muddied civil discourse–and the free speech debate–considerably.
In April, UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green characterized the debate in non-political terms saying: “I think [free speech] is a national issue. I don’t see freedom of speech as a liberal or conservative issue.”