Nebraska Husker fans sing, "There is no place like Nebraska," but I'm not sure that's entirely true. There is, for example, Kansas. In at least one respect, however, Nebraska is indeed unique in the nation. It is the only state to have a statewide academic freedom coalition.
Of course Nebraska is not the only state with serious defenders of academic freedom. Intellectual freedom in education is defended in every state by individuals representing a variety of organizations. These organizations generally operate independently of each other, however, with an especially strong divide between those concerned with higher education and those concerned with elementary and secondary education.
In Nebraska, however, English professor Mel Krutz, an anti-censorship activist within the Nebraska Council of Teachers of English (NeCTE), decided in 1987 that Nebraska needed a coordinated response to censorship. In the academic year 1987-1988, she and others on NeCTE's intellectual freedom committee -- the state counterpart of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standing Committee Against Censorship -- organized a series of meetings with representatives of other Nebraska groups.
This effort resulted on February 13, 1988, in the founding of the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska (AFCON). The founding organizational members of AFCON, in addition to NeCTE (now the Nebraska English Language Arts Council, NELAC), were the University of Nebraska−Lincoln chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the AAUP Nebraska State Conference, the Nebraska Civil Liberties Union (now ACLU Nebraska), the Nebraska High School Press Association, the Nebraska Library Association, and the Nebraska State Education Association.
Since 1988, AFCON has been run by a Board of Directors consisting primarily of a representative from each of its member organizations (there are now nearly 20). It has defended and promoted academic freedom in Nebraska by advising and assisting individuals, promoting policies that protect intellectual freedom, holding an annual conference, publishing a newsletter, developing a website, and educating anyone who will listen about the importance of intellectual freedom for faculty and students at all levels of education.
Central to AFCON's credibility has been its single-minded commitment to academic freedom, conceived as intellectual freedom in educational and research contexts, including freedoms of belief and expression and access to information and ideas. Members of the AFCON Board hold diverse political, religious, and other views, but the Board, guided by general principles of academic freedom, readily achieves consensus on matters at hand.
Equally important is AFCON's consistent recognition that academic freedom is crucial to teachers and students at all levels of education and that administrators and governing boards have crucial roles to play in protecting intellectual freedom in academic institutions. AFCON's annual academic freedom award has been presented to a variety of students, teachers, librarians, administrators, and governing boards.
At its annual meeting in November 2010, AFCON heard from keynote speaker Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, about the critical importance of journalism generally and student press in particular, and the challenges faced in defending intellectual freedom today. AFCON then presented academic freedom awards to a state senator and his key aide for promoting a bill to protect student freedom of expression and to a high school principal for supporting and defending student freedom of the press.
Did any other state have a meeting like this? Perhaps there is indeed no place like Nebraska, at least with respect to academic freedom, but AFCON would happily assist anyone anywhere who wants to make Nebraska less unique.
Every state should have an academic freedom coalition. It just takes someone to get it going. It could be you.