University announces new free speech policy

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 in the email. “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. Only members of the UT community and invited guests could use outdoor spaces for what the UT FAQ webpage on public forum called “expressive activities,” such as protests and assemblies. Under SB 18, Bird said these spaces are considered traditional public forums and will be open to all.

“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.”

According to the bill, the University may still restrict the times its 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 infringe on others’ rights to 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.”

University Democrats president Joe Cascino said in a statement that organizations could use SB 18 to make students feel unsafe.

“What (some organizations) are currently doing is making students feel unsafe and unwelcome,” government sophomore Cascino, said. “I believe that universities should be able to step in and keep people like (Richard) Spencer or useless incendiary protests like (Young Conservatives of Texas’) or Turning Point’s from happening.”

Lily Bonin, government senior and Young Conservatives of Texas chairman, said in a statement that YCT supports the passage of SB 18, but the University is only doing the bare minimum under the law.

“They may have hit the action points of SB 18 but ignored the spirit of the legislation and its goals and intentions for campus free speech and student rights,” Bonin said.

Bird said 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.