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Conservative professor sues state senator over blog post he says is defamatory

March 30, 2019

LINCOLN — A conservative university professor has sued a state lawmaker, alleging that a blog post by State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard defamed him as a “left-wing extremist” and a social media “troll,” and falsely claimed he’d made a death threat against a student who distributed conservative materials on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.

Gerard Harbison, a UNL chemistry professor who has served as an adviser of conservative campus groups, like the College Republicans and Young Americans for Freedom, called the October blog post on the senator’s legislative webpage, “grossly inflammatory” as well as false and defamatory.

Harbison, who was a registered Republican until his registration lapsed in 2015, said that Erdman knows his post was false but has refused to take it down.

“It’s a real question,” the professor said. “Should a state senator be provided with a state-funded website that he uses to defame Nebraska citizens, particularly employees of the state?”

Erdman, when reached by phone on Friday, said he had not yet seen the lawsuit, but did recall being contacted by Harbison about a retraction and apology for the October post. The senator said he didn’t recall responding to the request; Harbison, in an interview, said he was surprised that Erdman didn’t take down the offensive post, which was inaction that sparked the lawsuit.

Erdman said he would wait to be served the lawsuit before commenting at length.

“I can’t have an opinion but he can?” he asked. “I don’t know about that.”

The lawsuit is connected, in part, to an August 2017 incident on the UNL campus in which a student, sophomore Kaitlyn Mullen, said she was berated and harassed as she passed out literature for a conservative group called Turning Point USA by two UNL employees.

One, graduate student/lecturer Courtney Lawton, accused the student of being a neo-fascist and other things, and flashed her middle finger. Nearby, UNL professor Amanda Gailey held up a sign urging encouraging Turning Point USA to list her on its liberal “professor watchlist.”

Erdman and a handful of other conservative, Republican state senators criticized the university for not taking harsher and more immediate disciplinary action against the two UNL employees.

Later, in comments to the media, Harbison defended Gailey’s action — despite being on the opposite end of the political spectrum — and said the lawmakers’ actions were part of a spreading, nationwide “hostility” toward academia and academics.

″... She’s entirely within her rights and this is a witch-hunt,” Harbison told the Lincoln Journal Star about Gailey. In a World-Herald column in August, Harbison labeled Erdman’s assertion that UNL was hostile to right-wing professors and their viewpoints “nonsense.”

Fourteen months later, Erdman wrote on his state legislative blog a post entitled “Straight Talk from Steve,” stating that the “behavior of extremist, left-wing professors” was worsening at UNL. He then shared examples of what he called the loss of civility.

Among them was a segment about Harbison. Erdman wrote that left-wing professors have continued to harass Mullen, the UNL student, more than a year after the confrontation with the two UNL instructors.

Harbison, Erdman wrote, “continuously trolls Mullen online, leaving creepy and negative messages on her social media pages” and using an online alias of a “Canaanite god known for child sacrifice.”

“To be sure, Mullen’s death is exactly what he wants,” said Erdman, who also posted a photograph of Harbison on the blog.

“So,” Erdman wrote, “Harbison made a death threat against Mullen, and yet nothing has ever been done to confront him or to reign in this kind of behavior, yet it has been going on for over a year.”

Harbison, who once had a blog called The Right-Wing Professor, denied that he follows the UNL student on social media, and stated that he’s never met her. He said that Erdman’s claim that he threatened Mullen amounts to an allegation of a felony crime as well as a violation of the UNL code of conduct.

He is seeking monetary damages, as well as an apology, for humiliation, mental anguish and the damage done to his reputation by the state senator’s statements.

The lawsuit includes a copy of an email from an editor at the Hemingford Ledger newspaper in which the editor, Spike Jordan, said he had turned down Erdman’s request to run the blog post as an opinion piece because it appeared that he’d taken Harbison’s social media comments about Mullen out of context.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Lancaster County Court, adds that Erdman’s comments were not made during floor debate as a state senator, thus he is not protected by a clause in the State Constitution that grants immunity from civil or criminal liability to state lawmakers for “words spoken during a debate.”

Harbison, according to the UNL website, holds a doctorate in biophysics from Harvard University and a bachelor’s in biochemistry from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. He has taught at UNL for more than 26 years. Among his research interests is developing a better detection device for homemade explosives.