Speech First Files Federal Lawsuit Challenging Four University of Texas Policies that Chill Student Speech

“By failing to define highly subjective terms such as ‘offensive,’ ‘biased,’ ‘uncivil,’ and ‘rude,’ the University of Texas has given itself broad discretion to determine which speech – and whose speech – violates their policies. Unfortunately, this fails to pass Constitutional muster.”

 – Nicole Neily, President and Founder of Speech First

Austin, Tex. — Speech First, a nonprofit membership association working to combat restrictions on free speech and other civil rights at colleges and universities across the United States, filed a lawsuit today against the University of Texas—Speech First v. Fenves et. al in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas—in an effort to help restore free speech and expression to America’s universities.

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[.]”

In light of these policies, Speech First members enrolled at Texas 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 complaint alleges that these hopelessly vague policies chill student speech and expression – a clear First Amendment violation.

Speech First asserts 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.

“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.”

Speech First has asked the court to declare that UT’s speech codes are unconstitutional and to enjoin the Campus Climate Response Team.


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