West Mall’s history molded through free speech demonstrations

Nicole Cobler

What started out as a single, dirt path students would walk across on their way to class has transformed into the pulse of the University for students to table and to protest.

The West Mall, located west of the UT Tower, is known for it’s tree lined walkways that stretch to the Texas Union, where many student organizations rent tables to distribute flyers and information.

Former UT historian Jim Nicar said in the 1930s the University, which had about 11,000 students, had horse-drawn trolleys to transport students to class and drop them off in front of Guadalupe. This path from Guadalupe up to the west wing of the Main Building became known as the “West Walk.” Nicar runs a blog called “The UT History Corner” including history about the university.

“If they had built the east wing of the Main Building first, the Drag may have wound up on Speedway,” Nicar said. “Stores started popping up around the trolley stop which became an active part of campus. In fact, it’s almost like a second main entrance to campus.”

In 1933, a French architect named Paul Kret designed the campus master plan of the University. Kret is the architect of the Tower, the Union, Goldsmith Hall and designed the way the West Mall should be laid out.

Nicar said Kret designed the two square towers of Goldsmith Hall and the Union to frame the west entrance of UT because of its heavy student traffic.

In the 1950s and 1960s the West Mall became an important place for student elections, football rallies and a center of social life on campus, Nicar said. Protests didn’t really start until the ‘60s with the Vietnam War. In 1970, planters were put in the middle of the sidewalks by former UT System Regent Frank Erwin to discourage large gatherings of students.

Now, the West Mall allows student organizations to promote their initiatives. 

While some universities may have designated locations for free speech, UT allows free speech across campus, said Mary Beth Mercatoris, assistant dean of students.

The rally space in front of the steps facing the West Mall is also equipped with plugs where amplified sound may be used from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Many students consider the rally space the University’s free speech zone. 

“The entire campus is a free speech zone, but what people get confused about is amplified sound.” Mercatoris said. “In their minds they replace amplified sound zone with a free speech zone.”

Mercatoris said UT has 1,148 student organizations this year, who all have the right to bring guest speakers and rent tables on the West Mall.

“Whatever the topic is, we’re advocating for that free speech and assisting them to have an event where speech can flourish,” Mercatoris said.

Economics senior Jocelyn Matyas tables for Colleges Against Cancer to advertise to the University and give out information to students.

“[West Mall] is a high traffic area where people expect student organizations to advertise and engage with the community,” Matyas said. “It’s a great way to spread information around campus.”