Feds rescind university president's threat to faculty

The federal Bureau of Indian Education has stepped into a free-speech dispute at the government’s Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas, rescinding a threat from the university’s president to faculty that “derogatory opinions” are not protected by “academic freedom.”

The controversy began when President Ronald Graham banned a student reporter from publishing stories about the university and then backed down.

Then Graham, as WND reported, stripped faculty members of the right to comment, stating his decision was “non-negotiable.”

But the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education protested Graham’s decisions, and now the federal agency has rescinded the “unconstitutional directives.”

FIRE said the “first directive, personally signed by Haskell President Ronald Graham, forbade all employees, including faculty, from expressing opinions about the administration, claiming that such expression is ‘inappropriate’ and asserting that it is not protected by academic freedom.”

“The second, issued just over a week later, forbade faculty from mentioning their Haskell employment when speaking with the media,” FIRE said.

“Haskell’s latest directives sent a clear message to faculty: The administration is watching and is prepared to violate the Constitution to protect its reputation,” said FIRE Program Officer Lindsie Rank. “We’re relieved that the BIE finally stepped in to preserve faculty rights, but the Haskell administration has repeatedly tried to suppress dissent, and the BIE — which operates the university — should have acted long ago to end the pattern of rights violations endemic to Haskell.”

Last month, FIRE also sued Graham in his personal capacity in a First Amendment lawsuit filed for another directive he issued, forbidding the student newspaper editor from engaging in routine newsgathering. The lawsuit also challenges Haskell’s refusal to approve the newspaper as a student organization and its withholding of more than $10,000 in funding following its critical coverage of the university.

“While we are pleased that Haskell restored the free speech rights of its faculty, the Constitution does not permit the university to pick and choose whose First Amendment rights it will honor,” said FIRE Vice President of Litigation Darpana Sheth. “Haskell’s students and student press are also guaranteed First Amendment rights. And the university’s actions over the last six months demonstrate why an independent student press is more vital than ever to keep university officials accountable.”

Graham banned student reporter Jared Nally from engaging in routine newsgathering, including asking questions about the actions of university officials. He later restored Nally, but not before the FIRE, the Native American Journalists Association and the Student Press Law Center all got involved in the dispute.

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This article was originally published by the WND News Center.

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