Like many of their fellow students, conservatives at the University of Texas at Austin will very likely be making a trip to New Orleans this coming fall. But unlike many of their fellow Longhorns, these students won’t be headed to Bourbon Street—they’ll be going to court.
At UT-Austin, more than 80 percent of students agree that they are not free to say what they believe on campus because others might find it offensive. The taxpayer-funded university also has an entire department, known as the Campus Climate Response Team, dedicated to enforcing rules to completely prohibit any speech deemed inappropriate by administrators or other students.
It’s these policies that conservative students have challenged in court. Partnering with Speech First, a First Amendment advocacy organization with a focus on litigating to protect free speech on campus, the students filed a suit in federal court alleging the speech regulations were unconstitutional.
The lawsuit largely mirrors Speech First’s successful efforts to force the University of Michigan, whose speech policies were nearly identical to those implemented on the Forty Acres, to change some of its policies.
In that case, even the Trump administration argued in support of Speech First. In a statement of interest in support of the organization, the Trump administration said, “Instead of protecting free speech, the University imposes a system of arbitrary censorship of, and punishment for, constitutionally protected speech.”
But despite Speech First’s compelling arguments against UT’s similar policies, District Judge Lee Yeakel dismissed the case last week.
Appointed by President George W. Bush, Yeakel is famous for striking down House Bill 2, the Lone Star State’s pro-life law that was appealed and later largely upheld by the Supreme Court, and has often ruled against conservatives or dismissed their lawsuits entirely; this forces them to appeal their case to the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considered a conservative court.
Speech First says they plan to continue their case.
“Speech First continues to believe that the university’s policies chill protected expression in violation of the First Amendment,” said Speech First president and founder Nicole Neily in a statement. “We look forward to the next phase of the case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.”
The defeat in district court means UT-Austin’s speech policies will continue the chilling effect on student speech while the policy is appealed. However, taking the case to the Fifth Circuit does mean that if students are successful, they’ll create stronger precedent.