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Doane University Criticized for Censoring Blackface Photos

Nebraska’s Doane University has come under scrutiny from two free speech groups for suspending a librarian who erected a contentious photo display.

Melissa Gomis, the library director at the university, was suspended in April for erecting an exhibit on “Parties of the Past,” which included photos of Doane students from the 1920s wearing blackface.

The inclusion of the photos prompted the university to investigate whether the display constituted “discriminatory harassment.” Gomis was reinstated last month.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the National Coalition Against Censorship alleged the university of not honoring its promise of academic freedom that it makes to faculty.

“Doane University’s punishment of a faculty librarian for refusing to censor the school’s difficult past is one of the worst academic freedom violations we’ve seen this year,” Alex Morey, a FIRE program officer for legal and public advocacy, said.

“The university is effectively preventing people from confronting its history by labeling it ‘harassment.’ Doane administrators seem to think they’re better suited than faculty to judge when and how tough subjects can be taught. That’s not how academic freedom works.”

Some university professors also joined the rights groups in condemning the actions taken by the administration.

“Marching Melissa off campus and forbidding her to step foot on campus or use university email even after she removed the offending photographs was an extraordinarily damaging action on the part of the administration,” Chris Wentworth, a Doane physics professor and president of the institution’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said.

Campus free speech has become a topic of a national debate over the last few months. In March, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to enforce free speech on college campuses across the country which allows 12 federal agencies to withhold federal research or education grants, excluding federal student aid funding, from colleges that practice censorship.

In April, the Texas House of Representatives passed the House Bill 2100 to protect free speech at all higher education institutes within the state. Governors in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Iowa have signed similar bills into laws in their respective states in the past as well.

Furthermore, multiple campuses who have been accused of censorship are being sued in the courts. Last month, Speech First sued the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for creating an “elaborate investigative and enforcement regime” that curbs and punishes campus free speech. The lawsuit alleged the school of creating rules and regulations that restrain students from raising issues that are political and social in nature.

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