Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE): Student journalist sues Haskell Indian Nations University
Tribal college student sues Haskell University over freedom of the press
Wednesday, March 3, 2021
Indianz.Com

The country’s oldest Native student newspaper is again fighting to protect its press freedom.

Jared Nally, the editor-in-chief for The Indian Leader, which serves students at Haskell Indian Nations University, and the Indian Leader Association filed a lawsuit Tuesday alleging the university’s president, Ronald Graham, violated Nally’s First Amendment free speech and the newspaper’s free press rights by trying to stop Nally from writing stories that Graham considered disrespectful to the university and its staff.

Nally, a 27-year-old citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, and the Indian Leader Association filed the lawsuit before the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas.

“This is a public interest case,” Nally told Indianz.Com. “I’m not the only plaintiff here. The decisions from the court case affects … the free speech rights of students nationwide. This sets precedence, and specifically this sets precedence in Indian Country and in BIE (Bureau of Indian Education)-operated schools.”

jarednally
Jared Nally. Photo by Gary Rohman / FIRE

Founded in 1884, Haskell is one of two post-secondary education institutions in the country that the BIE operates. The other is the Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque.

Graham did not respond to a request from Indianz.Com Tuesday to comment about Nally’s lawsuit, and Klarissa Jensen, a spokesperson for the BIE, declined to comment. The BIE is part of the Department of the Interior.

“The Department does not comment on matters in active litigation,” she said.

Nally and the Indian Leader Association, which serves as the governing body for The Indian Leader student newspaper, filed their lawsuit with the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit dedicated to defending the rights of students and faculty at U.S. colleges and universities.

In addition to seeking damages for Graham’s alleged efforts to silence Nally as a student journalist, the lawsuit also seeks damages for Haskell’s decision to withhold nearly $10,000 of funding from the student newspaper and its refusal to revise its student code of conduct to protect student free speech.

jarednallyvhaskell

The dispute began October 16, 2020, when Graham sent a letter to Nally accusing him of attacking Haskell employees and contacting police in Lawrence, Kansas, where Haskell is situated, seeking information about a university employee who had died.

Graham instructed Nally to refrain from requesting information from government agencies and demanded that he treat Haskell staff with the “highest respect” or face disciplinary action.

The letter followed the publication of several articles written by Nally, including news stories that criticized the university’s eviction of a student who was critical of university faculty and the university’s decision to increase student fees.

Last October, the Native American Journalists Association, Student Press Law Center and FIRE wrote to Haskell, demanding that the university rescind its threats and reminding university leadership that they can be held personally and financially responsible for threatening freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Graham failed to respond for nearly three months, during which time Nally labored under the threat of punishment, according to the lawsuit.

On January 13, a counsel for BIE responded, saying Graham had rescinded his directive to Nally and that Graham had attempted to notify Nally of that fact but his undated letter was never sent due to an unexplained “administrative error.”

“As a direct and proximate cause of Defendants’ actions, Nally has suffered harm to his ability to effectively serve as editor-in-chief and the Indian Leader Association has suffered harm to its ability to serve as a campus watchdog and report on the news,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit also claims that Haskell administrators repeatedly ignored Nally’s requests to recognize the newspaper as an official student organization. Without this recognition, the paper does not have an official adviser, cannot receive full funding and does not have regular, reliable access to its student bank account. Haskell withheld more than $10,000 in funds from the paper without any notice or explanation.

The lawsuit also criticizes Haskell for implementing a student code of conduct that only permits speech that is consistent with the university’s values.

“Haskell is making it very clear that they put institutional reputation above student rights,” said FIRE attorney Katlyn Patton.

FIRE sent Graham another letter on January 19, calling on him to address the code of conduct provision that violates the First Amendment. An attorney for the federal government responded, saying that the policy was “under review.” In the meantime, Haskell allegedly uploaded a new version of the code of conduct to its website that still unconstitutionally limits student expression.

This isn’t the first time Haskell administrators have been accused of disregarding student free speech and free press rights.

In 1988, administrators temporarily shut down publication of The Indian Leader following critical coverage. The next year, a faculty adviser wrested editorial control from the students, causing several editors to sue the university.

Haskell settled the suit with a 1989 agreement promising not to impose any “prior restraint or censorship” on The Indian Leader, inhibit student journalists’ free expression, or refuse requests to access the newspaper’s funding.

“History repeats itself, and if a lawsuit is what it took for Haskell to respect student rights in 1989, then a lawsuit is what they’re getting in 2021,” said FIRE Vice President of Litigation Darpana Sheth. “And if they continue to not live up to their obligations under the Constitution, that’s what they’ll get again.”