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Nonprofit files complaint against Haskell to U.S. Department of Education, requests investigation over freedom of speech | News, Sports, Jobs

photo by: Jared Nally

Jared Nally is the editor in chief of the student newspaper at Haskell Indian Nations University.

A national nonprofit dedicated to protecting free speech has filed a complaint against Haskell Indian Nations University to the United States Department of Education.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) argues in its letter to the Department of Education that Haskell’s recent actions against student journalist Jared Nally were a violation of the First Amendment and requests that the department initiate an investigation to determine whether monetary penalties or other measures are appropriate.

“Unfortunately, attempts to informally resolve many of these matters have revealed an institution whose lack of concern for students’ fundamental constitutional rights has ossified,” the letter, written by program analyst Sabrina Conza, read. “Even when organizations repeatedly brought concerns to the direct attention of the university’s leadership, its leaders were slow to respond to urgent issues and negligent even when they responded belatedly.”

A spokesperson for Haskell did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the recent development.

As the Journal-World reported last week, Haskell rescinded a directive it had sent to Nally in October that told the student journalist what he could and could not publish. The directive had demanded that Nally not attack any students, faculty or staff members with letters or in public; make demands of any governmental agency while claiming to represent the student newspaper, The Indian Leader; attempt to countermand decisions of Haskell personnel; or record anyone at Haskell in interviews unless first advising them and receiving their permission.

In an undated letter that Nally received on Jan. 13, Haskell President Ronald Graham wrote that the university “took an incorrect approach” in sending out the Oct. 16 directive.

“Accordingly, I commit that Haskell will not interfere in the affairs of the Indian Leader or impede the free expression rights of individual students at Haskell,” Graham wrote.

In an email to Nally on Jan. 13, Graham wrote that he had sent his response letter to the Bureau of Indian Education on Nov. 20, 2020, but that he just learned on Jan. 13 that it was never sent to Nally because of “an administrative mishap.” Graham apologized for the delay in delivery.

In its letter to the Department of Education, FIRE writes that this “delay led to an inexcusable and unconstitutional chilling effect on Nally and the Leader’s expressive rights.”

FIRE said that Haskell’s actions have misrepresented its student code, which claims to protect freedom of speech on campus. The letter includes an appendix with relevant excerpts from Haskell’s Student Handbook and Code of Student Conduct.

In addition to the situation with Nally, FIRE also addressed what it believed to be another instance of suppression that occurred in April of 2020. FIRE wrote that Haskell placed a student on an emergency suspension because he allegedly cursed at the university’s facilities foreman. FIRE then wrote that Haskell failed to provide the student with a timely hearing and that had the nonprofit not intervened, the university might have stalled the hearing for even longer. FIRE cited this instance — and the recent situation with Nally — as two examples of Haskell’s “history of actions intended to suppress student expression.”

Lindsie Rank, a program officer with FIRE, Francine Compton, president of the Native American Journalists Association, and Sommer Ingram Dean, staff attorney at the Student Press Law Center, also wrote a letter to Haskell dated Jan. 19. In the letter, the three organizations request that Haskell take further actions to revise its student code of conduct to accord with the First Amendment.

The three organizations expressed specific issues with Haskell’s “CIRCLE” values: Communication, Integrity, Respect, Collaboration, Leadership and Excellence. The groups say the acronym presents “laudable goals” but restricts student expression rights. They say the university cannot mandate “respect,” for example, without “departing from its obligations under the First Amendment.” The groups asked, among other changes, that the university revise its “CIRCLE” values to make clear that they are aspirational, not mandatory.

“Making these revisions to the student handbook and ensuring that students are aware of these changes will begin to make amends for the hostile free expression climate HINU has created,” the letter states.