Given the assault on free speech, prevalent and growing on American college campuses over the past several decades, we should welcome any victory we can call, small or large, and the one last week was pretty big. A big debt of thanks goes to the non-profit organization Speech First, which has been working in this battleground for several years with good progress. At The University of Texas at Austin, Speech First sued on behalf of students in 2018, claiming that UT and its officials had “created an elaborate investigatory and disciplinary apparatus to suppress, punish, and deter speech that other students deem ‘offensive’, ‘biased’, ‘uncivil’, or ‘rude’.” Students could anonymously report their professors and peers for “bias incidents” to the Campus Climate Response Team, which would investigate and threaten disciplinary referrals and “restorative justice” meetings with administrators.
These acts could include “faculty commentary in the classroom perceived as derogatory and insensitive” and other behavior open to highly subjective judgments. A federal judge dismissed the case in 2019, but Speech First appealed, and in October the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the ruling and remanded the case back to the district court, with Circuit Court Judge Edith Jones blasting the bias response team as “the clenched fist in the velvet glove of student speech regulation”.
Just before Christmas came the final settlement with the Court, in which UT agreed to the following terms: (1) the removal of the provision in its internet policy that prohibited sending “rude or harassing correspondence”; (2) revised the provisions in its Residence Hall Manual governing harassment and incivility; (3) amended its definition of verbal harassment; and (4) abolished its Campus Climate Reporting Team and if UT ever creates an alternative to the CCRT, Speech First is free to challenge the alternative in a new lawsuit.
This is a major victory for free expression and one would now hope that UT will finally take the next step and adopt the gold standard for campus free speech, the so-called Chicago Principles drafted five years ago at the University of Chicago. I hope and expect that Speech First will be working on this outcome with the support of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, along with my colleagues at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, both of which have been heavily involved with this issue.