Arguing that purpose of the First Amendment is to protect offensive speech, a group of students has sued the University of Texas at Austin.
The complaint by the student organization Speech First names university President Gregory Fenves and other officials.
“The mere dissemination of ideas – no matter how offensive to good taste – on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency,'” the complaint charges.
“Yet the University of Texas at Austin and its officials have created an elaborate investigatory and disciplinary apparatus to suppress, punish, and deter speech that other students deem ‘offensive,’ ‘biased,’ ‘uncivil,’ or ‘rude.'”
The case points out that the federal court already has “instructed” the university that the First Amendment does “not apply with less force on campus,” but it is “ignoring that admonition.”
UT’s speech codes target “verbal harassment,” “offensive” speech, “insults,” “epithets,” “ridicule” and more based on characteristics such as “ideology, political views, or political affiliation.”
But the prohibitions, which are “backed by the threat of investigation and formal or informal discipline,” are vague and undefined and “provide no clear or objective guidance to students about how to comply,” the complaint contends.
The practices and policies “unconstitutionally chill speech,” it alleges, citing a “red light” rating, the worst possible, for the university from the Foundation on Individual Rights in Education.
The policy punishes students for “rude” or “uncivil” speech but does not define the terms.
It even has a SWAT-style “Campus Climate Response Team” to respond to and punish complaints about undefined incivility.
“If the incident potentially violates the law or the university’s rules, the CCRT ‘works in partnership with campus and community resources that address violations of university policies and criminal acts,'” the complaint states.
Other schools, such as the University of Northern Colorado and the University of Iowa, already have scrapped their own SWAT teams, because they were viewed as being punitive to students.
But the practice remains at Austin.
FIRE pointed out that during the confirmation hearing of now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh, members of the Young Conservative of Texas set up a pro-Kavanaugh table and held up supportive signs.
“A large group of students surrounded the table for approximately two hours, hurling expletives and forcibly grabbing and destroy the signs,” FIRE said. “One YCT member had his ‘Make American Great Again’ hat ripped off his head. The incident ended because campus police escorted the YCT members away to protect their safety. The YCT members were then ‘doxxed,’ meaning their personal information was published online (including their names, phone numbers, emails, and jobs). Upon information and belief, the university has taken no action.”
The university even warns students of the “consequences” of choosing the wrong Halloween party costume to wear.
“Less than two months ago … an event featuring conservative commentator Charlie Kirk was disrupted with chants and … and many of the signs advertising the even were vandalized or removed,” the complaint notes.
“The university’s official policies already make clear – that certain viewpoints are not welcome on campus and will be met with retribution from the university and/or other students.”
Student members of the group, whose names were withheld in the complaint, hold pro-life, pro-GOP and conservative views. But they are fearful of even expressing their opinions because of the university atmosphere of intolerance, it complains.
The suit seeks a declaratory judgment striking the prohibition on “verbal harassment” as a violation of the Constitution and an injunction against future prosecutions by the school of students.
“Without a doubt, the University of Texas has failed to appropriately safeguard students’ First Amendment rights,” said Speech First President Nicole Neily. “Students deserve to be able to express themselves and voice their opinions without fear of investigation or punishment – which is why these policies must be reformed.”