University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate instructor Courtney Lawton became a minor internet sensation earlier this year when members of the conservative student organization, TurningPoint USA, posted video of her peacefully protesting one of their recruiting events.
Now, Lawton claims that she has been fired by the university, and with the help of prominent libertarian free speech activists, she’s fighting back.
What happened at the protest?
In the video, Lawton can be seen holding a sign that says “Say no to neo-fascism” and verbally criticizing both TPUSA and the recruiters who were present. At one point, Lawton flips off the person holding the camera.
The video did not indicate that any violence or threats of violence occurred between either of the parties.
In a separate video, a different faculty member told TPUSA that they had to go to a “free speech zone” to carry out their recruitment efforts. However, Nebraska-Lincoln does not have a “free speech zone” and the university admitted that this professor erred in her instructions.
What happened next?
When video of the confrontation was posted online by TPUSA, the school was bombarded with emails and threats.
Lawton was removed from the classroom effective Sept. 1 and was informed that her contract would not be renewed when it expired.
What did the school say?
In a statement released to libertarian free speech organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, UNL claimed that Lawton was released because she failed to meet the university’s “expectations for civility.”
In an email to popular libertarian blog Reason, however, Lawton claims that the school gave her contradictory reasons for her termination. Lawton claims that she was initially told that her removal was due to “safety concerns for students” but later was told in a follow-up meeting that she was being removed from the classroom because her presence would be “too disruptive to students.”
What happens next?
Both FIRE and Reason have responded to the university, arguing that the policy under which Lawton was dismissed was unconstitutionally vague. Additionally, in a lengthy letter written to the university, FIRE argued that Lawton’s speech was constitutionally protected under the First Amendment and that her termination was unconstitutional for that reason as well.
FIRE’s letter requests a response from the university by Friday. In the past, FIRE has filed lawsuits on behalf of students and professors in order to preserve free speech on campus. It is not clear if FIRE intends to file a lawsuit against the university if it does not respond in a timely manner.