Freedom of Expression

Former Guest Lecturer at University of Nebraska Sues for Free Speech Violations

Scales of Justice
Emblem of Justice. May 5, 2012. Mbiama/Wikicommons.

A former graduate student and non-track guest lecturer at the University of Nebraska is suing the university’s board of regents for violating her First Amendment rights.

Filed on August 26th in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, Courtney Lawton alleges that the university wrongfully terminated her contract in September of 2017 after she expressed her views in a campus “free speech area.”

In August of 2017, Lawton was hired to be a special guest lecturer, and as part of her contract, was required to teach two fall courses and two spring courses for the 2017-2018 school year. 

Later that month, Lawton “expressed her views” in a “free speech area” on the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s campus. While the complaint doesn’t detail exactly what Lawton said, it appears that she criticized members of a conservative student group, given that she was later the target of conservatives’ ire for her comments. According to the complaint, the University received “many angry letters and emails, all of which were critical of the plaintiff.” 

In response, on September 5, 2017, the board of regents told Lawton she was being relieved of her teaching duties for “security reasons,” but would retain her appointment as a special guest lecturer. The next day, investigators within the campus police department told Lawson that they hadn’t learned of any active threats against her and her students, and that the officers were surprised that she had been removed from teaching for security reasons. 

On September 6th, a spokesperson for the board of regents issued a statement saying that Lawton was removed for security reasons, but also that “our expectations for civility were not met by the lecturer in her behavior…and not representative of the University where the robust free exchange of ideas takes place 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” Lawton was then placed on probation, and on November 17, 2017, ostensibly after being pressured by five Republican state senators and the local media, the school’s chancellor announced that Lawton was banned from teaching at the university.

In her lawsuit, Lawton says she was denied her due process rights when the university refused to give her an adjudication hearing as is required by the school’s bylaws. Furthermore, Lawton alleges that she “suffered an adverse employment consequence of her exercising her right to free speech as guaranteed to her by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Nebraska.”

Lawton seeks a jury trial, as well as monetary damages for lost income and mental and emotional distress.