Within the past week, the nonprofit organization, Speech First filed a lawsuit against the University of Texas at Austin —"Speech First v. Fenves et. al" in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas.
In a press release, Speech First explains what they believe to be troublesome policies currently on the books at the University of Texas at Austin, while arguing that there are numerous and significant revisions needed:
Through the use of four policies – the Institutional Rules on Student Services and Activities ban on “verbal harassment,” the Acceptable Use Policy, the Residence Hall Manual, and the Campus Climate Response Team – the University of Texas has created an elaborate investigatory and disciplinary apparatus to suppress, punish, and deter speech that students may deem “offensive,” “biased,” “uncivil,” or “rude.” As used, these concepts capture staggering amounts of protected speech and expression because the school fails to provide sufficiently narrow definitions for these highly subjective terms – creating a serious risk that these provisions will be enforced in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner, or will be used to target speech based on the viewpoint expressed.
More than 100 reports of alleged “expressions of bias”—through posters, fliers, social media, whiteboards, verbal comments, classroom behavior, etc.—have been investigated by the university’s bias response team since September 2017. According to UT, examples of bias incidents may include “somebody … creat[ing] a hostile or offensive classroom environment,” “[d]erogatory comments made on a … course Facebook page,” “[h]ostile and insensitive treatment in interaction with a campus department/unit,” and “[s]tudent organizations participating in traditions perceived as insensitive or based on stereotypes[.]”
The student newspaper at the university, The Daily Texan, reports:
The lawsuit specifically goes after UT’s speech policies, residence hall manuals and the Campus Climate Response Team, or CCRT. The suit said the speech policies and manuals, both of which prohibit verbal harassment, violate the First Amendment because they are too vague in their definitions of such behavior.
“The absence of clear standards creates a serious risk that these provisions will be enforced in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner, or will be used to target speech based on the viewpoint expressed,” the suit states.
Speech First also argues in the suit that the rules are so broad they are almost impossible to follow.
As a reporting and enforcement tool for harassment on campus, the suit alleges that the CCRT “chills” free speech because of the wide-ranging nature of the definitions of standards for “verbal harassment,” “incivility” and “rudeness.”
In a statement to Townhall, Nicole Neily, the President of Speech First, spoke to the root of what her organization views as deeply concerning speech codes that are not being First amendment friendly by to university administrators.
"These four policies at the University of Texas - the verbal harassment ban, the Acceptable Use Policy, the Residence Hall Manual, and the Campus Climate Response Team - are meant to prevent students’ feelings from getting hurt, but they ultimately harm all students," Neily explained.
Colleges have the responsibility to expose students to new ideas and varying viewpoints that they might disagree with, at the same time Neily spoke to how campuses should promote rigorous debate and free speech.
"College campuses are the place where ideas should be vigorously debated, but sadly, the window of acceptable political discourse on campus is so narrow that students who express views outside that orthodoxy can be dragged through administrative proceedings to face punishments up to and including expulsion," added Neily.
“By failing to define highly subjective terms such as ‘offensive,’ ‘biased,’ ‘uncivil,’ and ‘rude,’ the @UTAustin has given itself broad discretion to determine which speech – and whose speech – violates their policies.” - @nickineily https://t.co/zD2w9H8F6C— Speech First (@Speech_First) December 14, 2018
The President of Speech First expressed that "students know this – and they avoid speaking altogether. That's not a real educational experience, and UT students deserve better."
When asked what the end goal of the lawsuit is, Neily made clear that the goal was to work with "the court to craft permanent relief that ensures students are able to speak freely about the issues of the day without fear of retribution and punishment."
"It is extremely difficult to have a system in place that reports speech without creating a chilling effect on student speech and expression, as it establishes a punishment-by-process mechanism," Neily closed in saying.
Townhall reached out to The University of Texas at Austin and received a comment from the Director of Media Relations and Issues Management, J.B. Bird who wasted no time in defending the status quo policies at the public university.
The university’s policies vigorously protect students’ First Amendment rights. The University of Texas at Austin strongly values and protects free speech, and all students, faculty, and staff have the right of free speech and expression on the UT Austin campus. As stated in the university’s Handbook of Operating Procedures:
“The freedoms of speech, expression, and assembly are fundamental rights of all persons and are central to the mission of the University. Students [at UT Austin] ... have the right to assemble, to speak, and to attempt to attract the attention of others, and corresponding rights to hear the speech of others when they choose to listen and to ignore the speech of others when they choose not to listen.”
Bird declared that the university is currently "in the process of reviewing the lawsuit." He concluded his comments to Townhall by stating, "At first glance, it appears to be incomplete on certain facts. We look forward to reviewing it and responding through legal channels."
Not all UT Austin students agree with the actions or lack thereof from administrators to make changes to what they deem to be a"restrictive speech code":
Speech First claim that its "members" who are students at the institution have "abstained from speaking on topics including immigration, identity politics, and abortion because they fear their speech will be anonymously reported as derogatory, hostile, and/or offensive to university authorities through the Campus Climate Response Team."
The member-based association further believes that the "overbroad nature and vagueness inherent in the school’s verbal harassment ban, Acceptable Use Policy, Residence Hall Manual, and Campus Climate Response Team present serious risks that they will be enforced in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner and may be used to target speech based on a speaker’s viewpoint."
In closing, Speech First requests the court to make clear that the University of Texas's speech codes and the "Campus Climate Response Team" are unconstitutional.
You can read more about Speech First here.
At the end of the day, let's not forget about these angry protesters who stormed a group of Judge Kavanaugh supports and ripped their signs up at the beginning of October... at the University of Texas - Austin.