Reagan-appointed judge revives free speech lawsuit against UT-Austin

A free speech lawsuit against the University of Texas Austin has been brought back after an appeals judge overturned the lawsuit's dismissal.

The judge wrote that the original decision to dismiss the lawsuit was "mistaken."

A previously dismissed free-speech lawsuit against the University of Texas-Austin has been brought back to life.

As Campus Reform reported in 2019, Bush-appointed Judge Lee Yeakel dismissed the lawsuit because, at the time, there was allegedly no evidence that UT-Austin punished or investigated students for their speech. According to The Austin American-Statesmanthat decision was overturned by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in late October, as Reagan-appointed Judge Edith H. Jones wrote that Yeakel’s conclusion “was mistaken.”

”The chilling effect of allegedly vague regulations, coupled with a range of potential penalties for violating the regulations, was, as other courts have held sufficient “injury” to ensure that Speech First “has a ‘personal stake in the outcome of the controversy,” Jones wrote in the ruling.

According to Pacific Legal Foundation, the lawsuit was initiated by three anonymous students, all of whom attend UT-Austin. The students are members of Speech First, an organization dedicated to promoting freedom of speech on the American college campus.

The lawsuit, which was filed by Speech First, is specifically directed at former UT President Gregory Fenves and cites several concerns regarding UT’s speech codes.

“Nonetheless, in recent years onerous speech policies that penalize supposedly controversial speech, including the University of Texas-Austin (UT) regulations challenged in this litigation, have become more common,” the lawsuit reads.

“Speech policies like these that go beyond time, place, and manner limits on decorum threaten to imperil the free expression of students and eviscerate the protections of the First Amendment,” it adds.

Speech First calls out UT-Austin’s speech codes, which “include speech codes, trigger warnings, so-called free speech zones, bias response teams, vague bans on ‘hate speech,’ and the dis-invitation of controversial speakers.”

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Ultimately, Speech First argues that these speech codes, “take a toll, chilling students’ protected speech over fear of causing offense, and contributing to an animus toward the free exchange of ideas.”

Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed an amicus brief in the case, alleges that at UT-Austin, these speech rules prohibit students from saying or writing anything allegedly “biased.” 

Should students be deemed to be spreading offensive material, they could be reported anonymously to the Campus Climate Response Team (CCRT) and potentially face disciplinary action.

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Bridgit Stevenson, a student at UT at Austin, told Campus Reform that she is not in favor of the speech codes.

“I don’t really think it’s a good idea to have our speech monitored this closely to the point where we could be disciplined,” Stevenson said. “Overall this will hopefully lead to a more free campus where we can have conversations without the fear of being approached by the university. It’s nice to hear that there are organizations out there who really look after the rights of students at college.”

”I don’t think people sometimes even realize how difficult it can be at times to speak freely on campus but this will definitely help solve that problem,” she continued. 

Campus Reform reached out to UT-Austin but did not receive a comment in time for publication. UT spokesman JB Bird told the American-Statesman, “the university is firmly 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.” 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @matthewkeyess