University that silenced student now strips faculty of speech rights

A university president who has been under fire for silencing a student newspaper editor now is stripping his faculty of the right to comment, ordering that “derogatory opinions” are not protected under “academic freedom.”

The order, said Ronald Graham, president of Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas, is “non-negotiable.”

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 Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Native American Journalists Association and the Student Press Law Center got involved in the dispute.

Nally later filed a lawsuit against the university and its president.

“The university owes Jared and all students an apology and a plan on how they’ll protect student rights moving forward,” said Lindsie Rank, author of the FIRE letter to the university. “There’s no excuse for restricting Jared’s rights. There’s no excuse for the delay. And now, there’s no excuse for not making institutional changes to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Nally, editor-in-chief of Haskell’s award-winning student newspaper, said his journalism work “gave me a voice, and unfortunately it’s going to take a lawsuit for the university to listen to it.”

“It’s important for student journalists to not only know our rights, but also our role,” he said. “We exist to hold our university accountable and to inform our fellow students and community. We have a right to press freedom and to share these stories.”

Now, FIRE says, Graham “is going after the speech rights of his faculty.”

In a personally signed directive, Graham chastised his “detractors” and forbade all employees, including faculty, from expressing opinions about the administration. He claimed that such expression is “inappropriate” and asserts it is not protected under academic freedom, FIRE said.

In fact, Graham told university employees, they must “refrain from engaging in any misconduct or behavior that is considered to be defaming, slanderous, damaging, and inflammatory towards others.”

“Derogatory opinions regarding coworkers, colleagues, and supervisors or administration is not protected under ‘academic freedom,'” he warned.

Shortly after that, Melanie Daniel, the university’s vice president of academics, said in an email that employees did not “have the right to represent, speak, write, post on social media, or communicate in any way using the Haskell name and/or your title at Haskell unless and until you have … approval prior to the action.”

In response, FIRE wrote to the Bureau of Indian Education, which operates Haskell, to insist that the directives be rescinded.

“Haskell’s continued willful blindness — or perhaps overt animosity — toward its obligations under the First Amendment are as stunning as they are unconstitutional,” said Rank. “Illogically, Haskell’s administration continues to do the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results. I can assure President Graham that, like the last time his administration trampled rights with an unconstitutional directive, FIRE stands ready to correct these transgressions.”

FIRE informed the federal agency of Haskell’s obligation as a public institute, in which “criticism” of officials “is still constitutionally protected.”

The case began when Graham banned Nally from reporting, alleging he failed to treat Haskell community members with the “highest respect.”

The Indian Leader is the oldest Native American student newspaper in the country. In September, the paper won 11 awards from NAJA, including first place for general excellence, FIRE said.

FIRE called Graham’s first letter to the student a “meandering, scolding screed” and warned it “has long been settled law that the First Amendment is binding on public colleges like HINU.”

HINU is operated by the federal government, FIRE argued, and therefore must uphold students’ First Amendment rights along with the requirements of a 1989 settlement agreement between the university and the student newspaper.

The agreement gave students full editorial control over The Leader, including the right to access its funding, “as well as its right to engage in journalistic pursuits free from censorship.”

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This article was originally published by the WND News Center.

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