The president of Haskell Indian Nations University finds himself under criticism from a national campus free speech organization that says his administration has violated the First Amendment rights of students and staff.
President Ronald Graham issued a “non-negotiable” memo early this month directing staff and faculty to voice their criticisms of the school, their peers and his administration internally through the university’s chain of command. He said that any detractors who criticize the school publicly will face consequences.
“Derogatory opinions regarding coworkers, colleagues and supervisors or administration (are) not protected under ‘academic freedom,’” Graham wrote in his March 11 directive. “Such inappropriate behavior will be addressed and may be referred to Human Resources for appropriate action.”
The memo essentially said that if someone working at the school has a complaint, they should take it to their boss rather than post it on social media or talk to the press. The university has more than 100 faculty and staff members, according to its website’s directory, and serves roughly 1,000 students from more than 130 tribes at its campus in Lawrence. Haskell didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, responded to Graham’s memo with a letter to the Bureau of Indian Education, the federal agency that oversees Haskell, saying the directive would “unconstitutionally limit the ability of faculty to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern.”
“Faculty at public universities don’t just give up their First Amendment rights,” said Darpana Sheth, FIRE’s vice president of litigation. “They’re still allowed to voice their opinions.”
Sheth said she has seen a number of cases nationwide where schools attempt to limit the speech of students and staff, but called the Haskell administration’s recent actions particularly alarming.
“That kind of neglect of and reckless disregard for First Amendment rights,” Sheth said, “is really troubling at a federally operated university.”
An implicit threat
In its letter, FIRE also cited a March 21 email that Melanie Daniel, the school’s vice president for academics, sent to staff and faculty saying that school employees are free to speak to the media — but not if they reveal their association with Haskell.
“You have the right to say or do as you please, as an individual,” Daniel wrote. “You do not have the right to represent, speak, write, post on social media, or communicate in any way using the Haskell name and/or your Haskell title unless and until you have (U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs) approval prior to the action.”
Sheth described Daniel’s email as “a gross exaggeration or misreading of the actual Department of Interior policy.”
FIRE contends those two messages sent from Haskell administrators muzzle the faculty’s academic freedom and aim to shut off public criticism and debate about the university.
“We hope that they will correct their policies immediately,” Sheth said, “or face consequences.”
Mark Johnson, an attorney who teaches First Amendment law at the University of Kansas, said that Haskell employees would have legal standing to push back.
“If they filed a lawsuit against (Graham) claiming that his order’s a violation of their First Amendment rights, I think they’d be on good grounds,” Johnson said. “To me, it’s a pretty clear question.”
Johnson said Graham’s memo creates an implicit threat that implies consequences for those who go against his order. But even if none of those consequences materialize, he said, the threat implied in the order stifles speech.
Johnson said a private university could lawfully limit its employees from speaking out publicly, but not a public university supported by tax dollars.
“Since the university is public, the First Amendment applies,” said Johnson. “So, what (Graham) has ordered is an infringement of their free speech.”
'History is just repeating'
The new criticism of Graham’s administration comes while the school faces an ongoing federal lawsuit filed by Jared Nally, the editor of the school’s student newspaper, The Indian Leader, over a directive from the university president about what the paper could publish.
The Lawrence Journal-World reported in October that Graham demanded the student editor not publicly criticize anyone at Haskell, request information from government agencies in the name of the school’s newspaper or record interviews without permission.
The lawsuit says that in addition to suppressing The Indian Leader’s First Amendment rights, the university also refused to recognize the newspaper as an official school organization. That decision has kept the country’s longest-running Native student newspaper from having a faculty advisor and cut it off from roughly $10,000 in funding.
Haskell settled a similar lawsuit in 1989 after the university halted the paper’s publication and seized editorial control following coverage that was critical of the school. In the settlement, Haskell agreed to not “censor, edit or modify the contents of The Indian Leader...or otherwise inhibit the free expression of members of (The Indian Leader) Association.”
“Haskell has a long history of violating the First Amendment,” Sheth said. “So, it seems like history is just repeating itself.”
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David Condos covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @davidcondos. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.