After being sued for allegedly violating student’s First Amendment rights, Haskell president restricts how employees can communicate

photo by: Conrad Swanson/Journal-World File Photo

A sign at the entrance to Haskell Indian Nations University is shown Friday, Aug. 5, 2016.

Story updated at 7:07 p.m. Thursday:

The president of Haskell Indian Nations University is once again being accused of writing an unconstitutional directive — this time addressed to his employees — by a nonprofit dedicated to protecting free speech rights on college campuses.

On March 11, Haskell President Ronald Graham sent a directive to Haskell employees regarding the “chain of command” and how employee issues should be addressed. He wrote that staff is required to follow the organization’s hierarchy when problems arise — that is, that an employee must report their issue to their supervisor, so that the supervisor will be made aware and may work on a solution to the problem.

“Regardless of the issue, at no time is it ever appropriate for any employee to disclose their issues publicly through the government email system or any other means of mass communication to individuals not directly or specifically a party to the possible resolution,” he wrote in the March 11 directive, which he called “non-negotiable.”

Graham wrote that Haskell leadership is committed to professionalism, creating a positive work environment and ensuring the interest of students, but that he has encountered “detractors” of these objectives.

The directive also states that employees, supervisors and managers must be professional and “conduct themselves in a manner that reflects positively on Haskell Indian University.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting free speech rights on college campuses, argues that the directive, as well as a March 21 email from a Haskell administrator, unconstitutionally limits the ability of faculty to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern.

“Haskell’s continued willful blindness — or perhaps overt animosity — toward its obligations under the First Amendment are as stunning as they are unconstitutional,” FIRE program officer Lindsie Rank said in a press release. “Illogically, Haskell’s administration continues to do the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results. I can assure President Graham that, like the last time his administration trampled rights with an unconstitutional directive, FIRE stands ready to correct these transgressions.”

Graham and the Bureau of Indian Affairs did not respond to a request for comment regarding FIRE’s allegation that the directives were unconstitutional.

In a March 21 email titled “The Kansas City Star, The Pitch, The Lawrence Journal World, social media, etc.,” Haskell’s vice president of academics, Melanie Daniel, wrote that Haskell employees do not have the right to speak to the media and mention their Haskell employment unless first receiving approval.

“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 title at Haskell unless and until you have DOI approval prior to the action,” she wrote. DOI presumably refers to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees Haskell.

In its press release, FIRE states that criticism of university officials is constitutionally protected, and that while universities may require their faculty members to distinguish their personal opinions from those of the university, they are allowed to speak to reporters and disclose their employment status.

FIRE’s allegation that these recent messages from Haskell administrators are unconstitutional comes in the wake of months of news concerning free speech rights at Haskell. Most recently, the editor of Haskell’s student newspaper filed a federal lawsuit against Graham, Haskell and the Bureau of Indian Education and its director after Graham sent a directive to the student journalist in October that told him exactly what he could and could not publish.

Graham later rescinded the directive and admitted the university “took an incorrect approach” in sending it out.

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