Lawsuit filed against University of Texas sparks free speech debate

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A national group takes aim against the University of Texas over its policies aiming to create a welcoming campus. The small government group Speech First claims the University is stifling free speech on campus.

The group is suing over the University’s speech policies, residence hall manuals, and its campus climate response team. They all can lead UT to look into issues when a student feels threatened or offended by something another student does or says. They’re meant to discourage racist, sexist, bigoted language. But Speech First, Inc says those efforts also crack down on free speech. 

The lawsuit highlights several controversial student events that were meant to start a dialogue. Tempers flared when members of the Young Conservatives of Texas set up a table supporting now Justice Brett Kavanaugh after he was accused but never convicted of sexual assault. The University cracking down on themed Halloween Parties like “country” or “border-themed” that could encourage bigoted costumes. Then, there’s another Young Conservative Event in 2013. They wanted to give away gift cards after people dressed up to “catch an illegal immigrant.” KXAN asked the plaintiff, Nicole Niely from Speech First, doesn’t the University have a role to play in encouraging a welcoming atmosphere?

“I have no problem with peers shunning each other. Students saying you’re a jerk, we don’t want to hang out with you. What I do have a problem with is a school as a state actor stepping in and picking winners and losers in this,” said Niely.

A spokesman for UT-Austin, JB Bird told me UT policies vigorously protect student’s First Amendment rights. He says they’re reviewing the lawsuit and says it is incomplete on certain facts. They’ll take it up in the court system from now on.

“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,” wrote J.B. Bird, spokesman for the University of Texas at Austin. 

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