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News Release

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

  • Student-editor: “When our university challenges the free speech of students, they are silencing a whole generation of Native voices.”
  • Saga is a warning to student journalists across the country.

In a meandering, scolding screed that demonstrates shockingly little knowledge of how journalism or the First Amendment work, a public university president formally forbade a student from interviewing government agencies for the student newspaper. He also directed the student editor to start showing university administrators the “highest respect” — or else!

Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Native American Journalists Association and the Student Press Law Center wrote to Haskell Indian Nations University. The coalition demands that the federally-operated university immediately and explicitly rescind its threats against the award-winning student newspaper and reminds the university’s leadership that they can be held personally and monetarily responsible for threatening freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Haskell Indian Nations University President Ronald Graham issued a personally-signed “directive” on October 16 to student journalist Jared Nally, threatening him with disciplinary action if he continued basic acts of journalism. Graham specifically prohibited Nally from recording interviews, interviewing government officials, and failing to treat members of the Haskell Indian Nations University community with the “highest respect.”

On October 5, Nally, editor-in-chief of The Indian Leader student newspaper, emailed the Lawrence Police Department with a routine request for information about the death of an Haskell Indian Nations University employee. As is standard journalistic practice, Nally identified himself as a student reporter of The Indian Leader. For that, Graham wrote that Nally “discredited” himself and the university, and brought “unwanted attention” to the Kansas university.

“Under no circumstances,” wrote Graham, “do you have the authority to contact the police department (or any other governmental agency) and demand anything on behalf of the university.” (Read Nally’s “demand” for yourself.)

“Native student journalists are our communities’ next generation of storytellers,” said Nally. “Journalism is about being community watchdogs, sharing information with our communities, and providing spaces for voices to be heard. When our university challenges the free speech of students, they are silencing a whole generation of Native voices.”

In July, the administration unilaterally removed the newspaper’s faculty adviser and installed its own pick — who happened to also be an administrator — which student editors feared would violate their editorial independence. Concerned that the appointment would imperil their right to engage as a free, independent student press, the Leader’s officers unanimously voted to remove the administration’s choice as faculty adviser.

Further complicating matters, the university ignored the Leader’s repeated attempts to renew its position as a sanctioned organization, ascertain the balance of its account with the student bank, and gain recognition for its former adviser.

The contentious backstory also led Graham to accuse Nally of “attack[ing] Haskell employees with letters” — a colorful, if not overly-dramatic, description of Nally criticizing the actions of campus officials by lodging written and oral complaints.

“The only ‘attack’ here is Ronald Graham’s egregious and unconstitutional attack on the free press,” said Lindsie Rank, author of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s letter to Haskell Indian Nations University. “President Graham must immediately disavow his threats against Jared’s right to ask questions of those in power. That’s Jared’s job as a journalist. It’s President Graham’s job to understand his very real obligations under the Constitution.”

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Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Native American Journalists Association, and Southern Poverty Law Center’s letter reminds the university that its directive goes against student journalists’ constitutional rights and that threatening or carrying out retaliation against Nally or the Leader for their free expression violates the First Amendment.

Haskell Indian Nations University is an educational institution operated by the federal government and bound to uphold students’ rights — not only by the Constitution, but by a 1989 settlement agreement between the university and the student newspaper.

Haskell Indian Nations University, for its part, does not make it particularly easy for students to understand their rights on campus. Haskell Indian Nations University’s student rights office website helpfully points out that “[l]orem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit, sed diam nonummy nibh euismod tincidunt ut laoreet dolore magna aliquam erat volutpat.” (Lorem ipsum is placeholder text.)

“It appears that Haskell Indian Nations University is spending their time crafting nastygrams instead of giving at least a begrudging nod to students’ rights on their website,” Rank said. “These are not the actions of a university that understands its binding legal obligations to honor student rights.”

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education requested a response by November 2 and is committed to using all the resources at its disposal to ensure student rights are protected at Haskell Indian Nations University.

“The Indian Leader is the oldest Native American student newspaper and one of Haskell Indian Nations University’s oldest continued legacies,” Nally said. “We are an award-winning publication, and it’s disappointing to feel like this amazing student legacy is not supported by our university.”

Last month, the Leader won 11 awards from the Native American Journalists Association, including first place for general excellence.

This isn’t the first time Haskell Indian Nations University left its students’ rights out in the cold: Earlier this year, they actually forced a student out into the cold, banishing him from campus, and leaving him to live in his car during a global pandemic. In April, Haskell Indian Nations University charged student Russell Parker with “threatening a federal employee” when he said a campus employee was “being an asshole” for threatening to tow his car. The university then suspended him without a hearing or any due process — leaving him homeless during the state’s stay-at-home order and forcing him to live in his car until he found temporary housing 800 miles away.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.

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