Free speech support from Texas GOP and UT-Austin leaders transitions to monitoring protester motives

Back in 2017, when concerns arose about the suppression of conservative viewpoints in Texas universities, Governor Greg Abbott took action by signing a bill that established stronger safeguards for free speech on campuses.

In 2019, Governor Abbott expressed his determination to protect free speech on college campuses in Texas by signing a law. He emphasized that certain colleges were prohibiting free speech, but with this new legislation, such restrictions would no longer be tolerated.

During a celebration of Free Speech Week six months ago, administrators at the University of Texas at Austin proudly highlighted the institution’s robust commitment to free speech on campus. They emphasized that this commitment extended to all forms of expression, including anti-war sentiments and speech that could be considered hate speech.

Amanda Cochran-McCall, the university’s vice president for legal affairs, emphasized during a school-affiliated Free Speech Week in October that hate speech cannot be restricted by the government. She raised concerns about the potential consequences if the government were given the power to arbitrarily define hate speech and arrest individuals based on such definitions.

Last week, Abbott took action by deploying the Department of Public Safety to address and suppress protests at the University of Texas at Austin, which he strongly opposed. Campus leaders have justified their decision to order students to disperse or face criminal trespassing charges.

As the state troopers forcefully brought students to the ground using black batons, Abbott expressed his support for the arrests.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Texas and throughout the United States are challenging the previous commitments to free speech made by state and university leaders. The response from UT-Austin to these protests, as well as the support shown by GOP leaders in the state, stands in stark contrast to their previous enthusiastic celebration and defense of protected speech.

“The irony is striking because the political right has long criticized campuses for not allowing enough freedom of speech,” remarked Kevin McClure, a higher education professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “Yet now, they vehemently advocate for suppressing students’ rights to free speech.”

Protesting on college campuses has long been a way for students to express their opinions and advocate for change. In Texas, there are laws in place that govern the rights and limitations of protesters on these campuses. It is essential for students to be aware of these laws to ensure that they exercise their First Amendment rights while also respecting the rules and regulations of the institution.

One of the key laws regarding protesting on college campuses in Texas is the Campus Free Speech law, also known as Senate Bill 18. This law, which went into effect in 2019, aims to protect the free speech rights of students, faculty, and staff on public college campuses. It ensures that individuals can express their views, engage in peaceful assembly, and distribute literature without fear of censorship or punishment.

However, it is crucial to note that the Campus Free Speech law also recognizes the importance of maintaining a safe and productive learning environment. It prohibits actions that would disrupt the functioning of the institution or infringe upon the rights of others. This means that while students have the right to protest, they must do so in a manner that does not interfere with the daily operations of the college or infringe upon the rights of other individuals.

In addition to the Campus Free Speech law, colleges and universities in Texas may have their own specific policies and guidelines regarding protests and demonstrations on campus. These policies may outline areas designated for protests, restrictions on amplification devices, and procedures for obtaining permits or notifying the institution of planned protests. It is crucial for students to familiarize themselves with these policies to ensure that they are in compliance and can exercise their rights effectively.

While protesting is a fundamental part of democratic society, it is essential to approach it responsibly and respectfully. Students should be mindful of the potential impact their actions may have on others and the learning environment. By understanding and abiding by the laws and policies in place, students can engage in peaceful and productive protests that contribute to meaningful dialogue and change.

UT-Austin officials have expressed their belief that protest organizers had intentions of occupying school spaces, similar to pro-Palestinian demonstrators at other campuses nationwide. However, this has led to a debate among free speech advocates, questioning whether these concerns justified the crackdown on protesters. These discussions revolve around the protection of speech within Texas universities and who is entitled to enjoy these protections.

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According to Alex Morey, the director of campus rights advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, there is a clear hypocrisy when it comes to the issue of free speech. Morey argues that there are double standards at play, with people claiming to support free speech but only when it aligns with their own beliefs. This inconsistency highlights the need for a more genuine commitment to the principles of free speech, rather than selective endorsement.

Rules and protections

When it comes to rules and protections, it’s essential to have a solid foundation in place. These guidelines serve as a framework to ensure fairness, transparency, and accountability. They act as a safeguard against any potential misuse or abuse of power.

Rules play a crucial role in maintaining order and harmony within a system. They set clear boundaries and expectations, providing a sense of structure and stability. By adhering to these rules, individuals can navigate through various situations with confidence, knowing that there are established guidelines to follow.

Moreover, rules provide a level of protection for everyone involved. They aim to prevent discrimination, exploitation, and any form of harm. By establishing regulations, we can create an environment that promotes safety and equality.

These rules are not arbitrary; they are designed to address specific needs and concerns. They are based on careful consideration of different factors, such as legal requirements, ethical considerations, and societal norms. By taking all these aspects into account, rules can be developed to ensure a fair and just system.

It is crucial to remember that rules are not meant to stifle creativity or inhibit personal freedom. Instead, they provide a framework for individuals to express themselves within acceptable boundaries. By respecting these rules, we can cultivate an environment that encourages innovation and growth.

In addition to rules, protections are also crucial in safeguarding individuals’ rights and well-being. These protections act as a shield, ensuring that people are treated with dignity and respect. They serve as a safety net, offering recourse and support in case of any violations or injustices.

The importance of rules and protections cannot be overstated. They form the backbone of a fair and just society, providing a solid foundation for individuals to thrive. By upholding these principles, we can create an environment where everyone feels valued, safe, and empowered.

Tensions on the UT-Austin campus have emerged five years after Texas Republicans united to pass a new law aimed at enhancing free speech protections at Texas universities.

The law has designated all outdoor areas at public universities as traditional public forums, granting individuals the freedom to express their thoughts and opinions. This includes not only students but also members of the public. Additionally, universities are prohibited from taking into account any potential controversies surrounding guest speakers when granting approval for their appearance on campus.

During last year’s Free Speech Week, Cochran-McCall emphasized that students might find it surprising that free speech encompasses more than just the right to express oneself. It also includes the right to remain silent, the freedom to wear protest items, and the use of strong or even offensive language to convey political messages.

The day after the campus arrests, UT-Austin staff took a different approach with their “NOTICE” flyers placed in front of the school’s tower. These flyers didn’t focus on what was allowed, but rather outlined the numerous restrictions for protests. The list included prohibitions on wearing masks or disguises, setting up encampments, making loud noises that disrupt learning, and blocking entrances.

According to Steven McGuire, an expert in campus freedoms at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Texas universities are allowed to establish “reasonable time, place, and manner” restrictions on free speech activities. In cases where these rules are disregarded, universities have the authority to take disciplinary action against students.

When it comes to free speech, there are certain limits that need to be considered. The First Amendment protections do not apply when free speech turns into discriminatory harassment or true threats that incite immediate violence or the destruction of public property.

The protest that took place last week remained peaceful until the police intervened. Within an hour, the authorities erected a barricade at the front of the crowd using their bikes. They used loudspeakers to warn the students that they would be charged with criminal trespassing if they didn’t disperse. As a result, 57 protesters were arrested. However, the Travis County attorney’s office dropped all criminal trespass charges against the protesters from Wednesday’s demonstration due to a lack of probable cause. Interestingly, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) is pursuing felony assault charges against a journalist who was present at the protest to cover the event.

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Law enforcement officers made numerous arrests on Monday when approximately 60 protesters established encampments. To disperse the crowd of demonstrators, officers utilized pepper spray and flash-bang explosives.

According to free speech experts, while the university has the authority to order the arrests of protesters who establish encampments, there is uncertainty whether last week’s protest, which was intervened by authorities before any significant disruptions occurred, violated any boundaries.

UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell’s explanation of the university’s response and the police crackdown last week appeared to contradict the protections that the university has previously highlighted.

In an email addressed to the community last week, Hartzell expressed his belief in the existence of “credible indications” suggesting that the organizers behind the protest on Wednesday were attempting to employ a familiar strategy of utilizing free speech and expression as a means to significantly disrupt the campus for an extended duration.

Pro-Palestinian protests have been breaking out on college campuses both in the state and across the country. For instance, at Columbia University, administrators had to take action and called the New York Police Department to disperse a campus encampment of pro-Palestinian demonstrators. This incident led to the arrest of over 100 individuals.

In an email dated April 25, which The Texas Tribune has obtained, administrators addressed the fundraising staff who would be receiving inquiries from donors regarding the university’s response. They outlined the information they had gathered, including social media posts that mirrored the language used by protest organizers at Columbia University and other institutions. Additionally, there was a concern that the Students for Justice in Palestine, a group not affiliated with UT, played a role in coordinating the walkout.

Organizers did not publicly communicate their intentions to stay past the university’s 10 p.m. curfew, incite violence, or establish encampments ahead of last week’s demonstration. Instead, the organizing group mentioned teach-ins on the South Lawn, an art workshop, and a pizza break in an Instagram post.

A faculty petition has been initiated at the University of Texas at Austin, urging for a no-confidence vote in the university’s president. This action comes as a response to the president’s handling of recent protests on campus.

The petition, which has gained significant support from faculty members, highlights concerns over the president’s response to the protests. Faculty members argue that the president’s actions have failed to adequately address the concerns and demands of the student protesters.

The petition states that the president’s response has undermined the principles of free speech and academic freedom, which are fundamental to the university’s mission. It further claims that the president’s actions have created a hostile environment for students and faculty members who are engaged in peaceful protest.

In addition to calling for a no-confidence vote, the faculty petition also demands a thorough investigation into the university’s response to the protests. Faculty members are seeking transparency and accountability from the university administration.

The faculty petition has garnered widespread attention and support, not only from faculty members but also from student groups and other members of the university community. Many believe that a no-confidence vote would send a strong message to the university’s administration and serve as a catalyst for change.

The president’s handling of the protests and the subsequent faculty petition highlight the importance of effective leadership and communication in times of crisis. It underscores the need for university leaders to listen to the concerns of their community and take decisive action to address these concerns.

As the petition gains momentum, it remains to be seen how the university’s administration will respond. The outcome of the no-confidence vote will undoubtedly have significant implications for the university’s future and its commitment to fostering a supportive and inclusive environment for all members of its community.

Free speech experts criticized the excessive presence of law enforcement officers on the campus during the peaceful protest, as there was no evidence or indication of any potential violence. While it is customary for a few officers to be present to manage such events, the large number of law enforcement personnel was deemed unnecessary and potentially intimidating.

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According to free speech experts, preventing unlawful assembly, as described by DPS, can potentially lead to the prevention of assembly altogether. They argue that this approach is a slippery slope.

McClure expressed concern over the swift arrest of peacefully protesting students for trespassing, stating that it establishes a worrisome precedent.

According to UT-Austin spokesperson Brian Davis, law enforcement was called because student protesters had violated the university’s “no masks” rule for demonstrations.

Savannah Kumar, an attorney with ACLU of Texas, raised concerns about whether a rule that prohibits face masks can override the protections of free speech. She emphasized that there may be students who are immunocompromised and have valid reasons to wear face masks. It is crucial that rules do not hinder or discourage individuals from exercising their right to free speech.

According to McClure, he anticipates that there will be legal challenges in response to the law enforcement actions during the protest on Wednesday.

The question of hate speech

Abbott criticized the protest, expressing his disapproval several weeks after implementing an executive order that obligated schools to modify their free speech policies to penalize acts of what he referred to as “the alarming increase in antisemitic speech and behavior on university campuses.” He specifically mentioned the Palestine Solidarity Committee, the organizers of the recent protest, as potential offenders. However, he did not provide any specific instances of how the group may have been involved in antisemitic speech.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators have faced similar accusations in other locations as well. A recent incident at Columbia University drew condemnation when Jewish students reported feeling unsafe and harassed during protests. According to The New York Times, some protesters who were not affiliated with the university verbally attacked Jewish students with antisemitic remarks. President Joe Biden expressed his strong disapproval of antisemitism on college campuses during these protests, deeming it as “reprehensible and dangerous.”

According to Morey, it is important to note that a peaceful pro-Palestinian demonstration should not be labeled as discriminatory harassment, despite Texas’ political leaders associating pro-Palestinian views with antisemitism.

According to Morey, a peaceful protester expressing the phrase “From the river to the sea” does not constitute severe or pervasive speech that would prevent Jewish students from attending class if they find it offensive. Morey argues that labeling it as hate speech or antisemitic by Governor Abbott does not automatically make it discriminatory harassment.

The chant “From the river to the sea” is often heard at pro-Palestinian demonstrations, referring to the land extending from the Jordan River and the occupied West Bank to the Mediterranean Sea. Pro-Palestinian activists view it as a plea for peace and equality in the Middle East. However, the American Jewish Committee has labeled it as an antisemitic “call-to-arms.”

According to the AJC, advocating for Palestinians to have their own state is not antisemitic. However, it is considered antisemitic to call for the elimination of the Jewish state, praise Hamas or other entities that call for Israel’s destruction, or suggest that Jews alone do not have the right to self-determination.

Last week, former U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican from Michigan, also expressed his concerns about Abbott’s remarks regarding the arrest of students for hate speech, stating that it infringes upon their constitutional right to freedom of speech.

Amash expressed his concerns about the arrests made by the officer, stating that if the arrests were based on reasons other than speech, it should be clearly stated. He emphasized that if the arrests were indeed made due to speech, then it would be a violation of the law, posing a threat to the entire state, including those whom the officer claims to protect.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, Morey stated that Abbott’s actions on Wednesday, where he instructed state troopers to intervene in the UT-Austin protest, clearly amounted to “viewpoint discrimination.”

“This is truly astonishing. We have never witnessed a situation where a governor is openly stating his intention to suppress protests simply because he disagrees with the views expressed,” Morey expressed with surprise. “It certainly appears that he is manipulating the law to suit his personal preferences, along with those who share his affiliations within the Texas government, solely because they find such speech objectionable.”

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