Judge dismisses free speech lawsuit against UT

Nicole Stuessy

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit on Tuesday filed against UT for violating students’ free speech rights.

The lawsuit was filed in December by Speech First, a national group that advocates for free speech on college campuses, and was aimed specifically at the University’s speech policies, residence hall manuals and Campus Climate Response Team.

The group claimed the rules under UT’s speech policy that prohibit verbal harassment violate the First Amendment and are impossible to follow because they are too unclear and broad.

“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 suit says.

In the ruling, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel wrote there was a lack of evidence from Speech First showing that students have been disciplined, sanctioned or investigated for their speech.

“Without any evidence of a credible threat of enforcement of the challenged policies … this court concludes that the students' self-censorship is not based on a well-founded threat of punishment under the University policies that is not 'imaginary or wholly speculative,'" Yeakel wrote.

Yeakel wrote Speech First did not provide evidence that the University has punished students for violating the Institutional Rules, the Residence Hall Manual or the Acceptable Use Policy, and the University proved there is no evidence of students being punished.

"The topics that the students wish to discuss — affirmative action, the #MeToo Movement, President Trump, immigration, Justice Kavanaugh and the Second Amendment — are not prohibited by the language of the Institutional Rules, the Residence Hall Manual or the Acceptable Use Policy,” Yeakel wrote.

University spokesperson J.B. Bird said the University agrees with the decision to dismiss the lawsuit and deny Speech First’s request for a preliminary injunction against UT's free speech policies.

“While we agree with the judge's decision, we acknowledge a shared dedication with the plaintiffs to the importance of free speech on university campuses,” Bird said in an email.

Bird said the University will continue to do all it can to support the freedom of speech on campus.

“Free speech is essential for The University of Texas at Austin to carry out its mission as an institution of higher education, and the University is proud of its work protecting the free speech rights of all members of its community,” Bird said.