The recent controversy over free speech at University of Nebraska-Lincoln has become a center of national debate over campus speech policies.
State of Conflict
How a tiny protest at the U. of Nebraska turned into a proxy war for the future of campus politics
By Steve Kolowich
From The Chronicle of Higher Education
The first month of the fall semester had not gone as Hank M. Bounds, president of the University of Nebraska, had hoped. It was shaping up to be a tough budget year, for the school and the state, and he had hoped to press the case for how valuable the university was to the state. Instead, the president was sitting across from a Lincoln-area radio host as he delivered a monologue on what it means to call someone “Becky.” The host seemed to be paraphrasing entries pulled from the website UrbanDictionary.com: It was slang for a white woman. Some definitions mentioned sex acts.
“Some say that goes beyond intimidation,” said the radio host gravely, “that that even borders on hate speech.”
In late August, there had been an incident. A graduate student and members of the English department had confronted a 19-year-old undergraduate over politics. Words were exchanged, including the one the radio host was now trying to define. The whole thing had lasted about 20 minutes and had barely made a ripple on campus. But thanks to a cellphone video, a web-savvy political organization, and a group of suggestible lawmakers, it soon sent shockwaves across Nebraska. People were talking about how the changing landscape of American politics posed a threat to them, to their state, and to their children…
Over the next few months, Nebraska would become the next front of a battle over what kinds of speech should be tolerated on a college campus. It was a case study in the politics of provocation and the increasingly fraught relationship between state universities and the public they serve. What started as a brief verbal clash between two women on a campus plaza ended with a drawn-out standoff between powerful institutions over what a state, and its people, should stand for.
It was less about free speech than how to use free speech to get what you want…
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