University changes free speech policies for common outdoor areas following new state law

Lauren Grobe

Starting Sunday, the University will change how it enforces free speech in most on-campus outdoor public spaces in accordance with a new state law.

In an email sent to the student body Friday afternoon, UT President Gregory Fenves said Senate Bill 18 will make common outdoor areas on campus available to the general public to use for free speech and expression. 

“Our campus is a hub for people to gather and share different perspectives and experiences,” Fenves said. “This freedom is a constitutional right that has always been the foundation upon which students learn and faculty members teach and conduct research.”

University spokesman J.B. Bird said the University’s outdoor spaces were previously limited public forums, and only members of the UT community and invited guests could use outdoor spaces for “expressive activities,” such as protests and assemblies

Under SB 18, which was passed by the Texas Legislature and becomes law Sunday, Bird said these spaces are now considered traditional public forums and will be open to all members of the public.

“Free speech is essential for the University to carry out its mission, and that has always been the case,” Bird said. “We have always been proponents of free speech.”

Public universities, such as UT, have until Aug. 1, 2020 to finalize the new free speech policies. The interim policies and procedures proposed by UT will be finalized and recommended for approval by the UT System Board of Regents in 2020, according to UT’s website.

According to the bill, the University may still restrict the times the outdoor spaces are available to the public and the types of actions the public can perform. Bird said the University can also still restrict actions which may affect the learning environment on campus.

“A good example that makes it easy to understand is that you can’t just have a rock concert on the Six-Pack because that would disturb the daily activities of the campus,” Bird said.

SB 18 also requires universities to write disciplinary policies for students, faculty and staff who interfere in free speech, according to UT’s website.

“Those disciplinary processes are not new,” Bird said. “(But) the law has some language that wants universities to spell out some certain forms of discipline.”