Students sue U of Texas
over free speech

By Jon Dougherty

A group of University of Texas students has sued 18 school administration officials for allegedly curbing their free-speech rights.

Lawyers for the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based legal group that defends religious freedom cases, said members of Justice For All, a pro-life student group, were repeatedly denied permits by university officials “to display a large pro-life exhibit on open areas of the UT campus,” said an Oct. 1 statement. The exhibit, ADF said, included photos of aborted babies.

The suit, filed Monday in U.S. district court in Austin, charges that although the university finally relented, officials “censored both the exhibit and the accompanying literature to remove all contact information for off-campus crisis pregnancy centers and help lines as ‘improper solicitation.'”

“This is a case of political correctness run amok,” said Benjamin Bull, the Alliance Defense Fund’s lead attorney. He accused the school of doing “everything in its power to censor the message” of the group, “including knowingly permitting hecklers and demonstrators to shut down [the group’s] speech.”

The Alliance also said the university prevented the student group from reserving an area on campus “traditionally used for student expression” to display their exhibit in December 2000. Then, said the legal group, school officials deemed the display “inappropriate.”

The pro-life group appealed, but university President Larry Faulkner ultimately denied it, said ADF.

In February 2001, Justice For All reserved another, “less desirable” location on campus for its display. But during the exhibit, ADF charges, “the university forced [the group] to cover over crucial contact information for crisis pregnancy centers and help lines, citing the school’s ‘no solicitation’ policy, even though the services offered were free.”

At the time, ADF charged, other groups supporting abortion “were permitted to distribute pro-abortion literature with off-campus information at a nearby table.”

ADF said university officials also allowed “several hundred” abortion rights activists to “invade” Justice For All’s exhibit and stage a sit-in, “effectively shutting down the exhibit.”

University officials did not return calls seeking comment.

The school’s policies “impermissibly” restrict speech, claims ADF, by:

  • Requiring prior official approval of nearly all student expression on campus;
  • Banning on-campus “solicitation” – a term ADF says is defined so broadly “as to prohibit nearly all forms of speech”;
  • Banning anonymous speech and literature, which is “clearly protected by the First Amendment”; and
  • Selectively enforcing certain policies only “to the detriment of Justice For All.”

In the suit, filed on behalf of the group itself and two of its members – Jeremy Alder and A. E. Smith – ADF charged that the university has violated First Amendment free-speech rights by “prohibiting student groups from engaging in free speech activities on the vast majority of the huge outdoor campus and limiting speech to a few so-called free speech zones.”

In all, the suit challenges 11 separate school policies “which have been used to restrict the free speech rights” of Justice For All. It names Faulkner and 17 other university officials “responsible for adopting and enforcing the speech restrictions on campus.” Besides seeking an injunction against university policies, ADF says it wants damages, too.

“The university has taken its policies – which already restrict peaceful expression – and used them to ban the pro-life message while encouraging opposition views,” said Bull.