Giving the Finger to Turning Point USA

In Giving Students the Finger, I wrote about an August 25 incident at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) in which Kaitlyn Mullen, a sophomore promoting Turning Point USA (TPUSA) and recruiting students to form a UNL chapter, was given the finger by Courtney Lawton, a graduate student and lecturer in English. No one has questioned my argument that giving students the finger is not protected by academic freedom.

But the facts are more complicated, and have been largely unknown because UNL cast a veil of secrecy over the entire matter, asking everyone to keep quiet while it investigated and then failing to explain what happened. I recently talked separately with Mullen, with Lawton, and with Amanda Gailey, an associate professor of English who protested TPUSA and then assisted Mullen.

It appears there were six protesters, mostly associated with the Department of English, including at least three who taught there. The six protesters came and went at different times and did not all know each other, though there were times when four or five were actively protesting.

The protesters did not physically block access to the TPUSA literature table or to Mullen. At least two, however, engaged in extended hostile chants about TPUSA from close by, including Lawton and an undergraduate English major, who were sometimes as little as a meter from the table.

Lawton, a long-time activist, sees TPUSA as a neo-fascist organization with a racist and homophobic ideology that threatens her personally. Given that the TPUSA literature table was set up in an area usually used by outside speakers and groups, and that TPUSA was not a campus organization, she assumed Mullen, the only person staffing the booth, was a paid staffer, and denounced her as a neo-fascist. Mullen denies that she is any kind of fascist.

At one point Mullen came around the table to record the protest, which Lawton took to be a hostile act typical of TPUSA tactics, so she gave her the finger. In her mind, she was flipping TPUSA a well-deserved bird.

Amanda Gailey, an associate professor of English, arrived sometime after that. She had also been following the rise of TPUSA with alarm and had previously asked TPUSA to add her to its Professor Watchlist, which claims to be a list of faculty who “advance leftist propaganda in the classroom” but actually lists faculty even for views expressed outside of class. Many professors have asked to be added to the list to show their contempt for it and their solidarity with those on it.

When Gailey heard TPUSA was recruiting at UNL she made a sign again asking TPUSA to add her to its blacklist. She stood well off from both the table and the other protesters.

After a while, Gailey noticed that Mullen seemed to be staring in bewilderment. When someone nearby reached over to comfort her, Mullen started to cry. Gailey went over to ask if she was okay and then asked Lawton and the undergraduate protester, who were facing away from the table, to stop chanting. Turning around, they stopped chanting, though Mullen says they mocked her for crying. She left shortly after that, escorted by police.

TPUSA distributed its version of these events widely, generating a frenzy of messages against Lawton and Gailey, many quite nasty, and economic threats to the university, including some from state senators. Police were consulted about potential risks. But neither Gailey nor Lawton felt particularly threatened and it is not clear there were any credible threats of violence.

UNL quickly determined that Gailey had done nothing wrong and that it would take no action against anyone but Lawton. On Sept. 7, UNL announced that Lawton was being removed from the classroom for security reasons, not for disciplinary reasons, although by then there were no further threats and she had been teaching without incident.

UNL also informed Lawton confidentially that she was guilty of infringing on Mullen’s freedom of speech. She received a formal warning of serious consequences for any additional problem. Mullen was kept in the dark throughout the process and never informed of the outcome.

There is much more to be said about what happened, what should have happened, and what should be done. But those are the facts, as best I can determine them for now.

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