Court revives free speech lawsuit against UT-Austin

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Photo Credit: Jamie Hwang | Daily Texan Staff

The 5th United States Circuit Court of Appeals revived a lawsuit against the University by a group of students who said the University’s free speech policies on verbal harassment, intimidation and incivility are too broad and violate the First and Fourteenth amendments. 

The lawsuit was originally filed in December 2018 by Speech First, a national organization of free speech advocates for college students, according to its website. In 2019, former UT President Greg Fenves and Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly said they did not know of any incident in which a student was investigated for protected free speech, according to previous reporting by The Daily Texan.

After the University responded to the lawsuit, the district court dismissed the case in June 2019, saying Speech First lacked standing, according to the ruling. Now, the circuit court says that conclusion was a mistake and the case will proceed.

In the lawsuit, members of Speech First said they described themselves as “tea party conservatives,” “strongly pro-life” and in support of President Donald Trump’s border wall. Speech First claimed that the University’s free speech policies, which prohibit harassment, incivility and acts of hate or bias, make students afraid to voice their views.

The University policies include the Hate and Bias Incidents Policy and Campus Climate Response Team, which is designed to respond to reports of intolerance, hate, bias or prejudice on campus.

“The University strongly encourages individuals who believe they have been discriminated against or have experienced threatened or actual violence on the basis of their race, color, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity or gender expression, age, disability, citizenship, veteran status, sexual orientation, ideology, political views, or political affiliation to report such incidents as provided in this policy,” the Hate and Bias Incidents Policy states.

The circuit court ruling states the case is important in the current national condition so people are free to debate and express their opinions to influence public policy.

University spokesperson J.B. Bird said the University is committed to protecting and promoting the free speech of all students. 

“We are reviewing the federal court ruling as we consider the best ways to continue to support freedom of expression,” Bird said.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include a comment from the University. It has been corrected to include the correct name of the court. Originally, the story said “district court” and has been updated to “circuit court.”