Students sue the University of Texas and 18 officials for censoring free speech
Austin, TX – The Alliance Defense Fund Law Center, a public interest law firm, filed suit in federal court on Monday, Sept. 30, 2002, against 18 administration officials of the University of Texas System and the University of Texas at Austin.
The lawsuit challenges 11 separate university policies which have been used to restrict the free speech rights of Justice For All, a pro-life student organization. Along with an injunction against university policies, the suit requests damages.
The lawsuit alleges that, during the 2001-2002 academic year, student members of Justice For All repeatedly applied for and were denied permits to display a large pro-life exhibit on open areas of the UT campus. The exhibit includes photographs of aborted children.
Permission was finally granted, but university officials censored both the exhibit and the accompanying literature to remove all contact information for off-campus crisis pregnancy centers and help-lines as "improper solicitation."
The university then allowed another student organization to disrupt the exhibit and also allowed a UT professor to drown out Justice For All’s guest speaker with a bullhorn. The lawsuit also alleges that UT has violated the requirements of the First Amendment by prohibiting student groups from engaging in free speech activities on the vast majority of the huge outdoor campus and limiting speech to a few so-called free speech zones.
"This is a case of political correctness run amuck. The university, supposedly the marketplace of ideas, has done everything in its power to censor the message of this group–including knowingly permitting hecklers and demonstrators to shut down their speech." said Benjamin W. Bull, the lead attorney on the case and Chief Counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund.
"The university has taken its policies – which already restrict peaceful expression – and used them to ban the pro-life message while encouraging opposition views. UT cannot play favorites with the First Amendment," Bull said.
In December 2000, Justice For All attempted to reserve an area on campus traditionally used for student expression to display their exhibit. The university officials banned the exhibit as "inappropriate." Justice For All appealed the decision, according to university procedure. After two months of delay, President Faulkner ultimately denied the appeal.
In February 2001, Justice For All then reserved another, less-desirable location on campus for the exhibit. During the exhibit, the university forced Justice For All to cover over crucial contact information for crisis pregnancy centers and help-lines, citing the school’s "no solicitation" policy even though the services offered were free.
Justice for All captured a university official on video tape blacking out words and information on brochures and signs that were a part of the exhibit. During this same time period, other "pro-abortion" organizations were permitted to distribute pro-abortion literature with off-campus solicitation information at a nearby table. With the express permission of the university, several hundred students hostile to the pro-life exhibit actually invaded the exhibit area and staged a sit-in, effectively shutting down the exhibit.
During another university-approved Justice For All event, a university professor brought out a bullhorn and, together with students, screamed and heckled a guest speaker so that the event was effectively shut down. University officials were present and refused to enforce UT policy against disruptive behavior.
According to the complaint, the school’s policies impermissibly restrict free speech and free press by:
- Requiring prior official approval of nearly all student expression on campus
- Banning on-campus "solicitation" – a term defined so broadly as to prohibit nearly all forms of speech, including political speech
- Banning anonymous speech and literature – speech that is clearly protected by the First Amendment
- Selectively enforcing certain policies only to the detriment of Justice For All
The suit contends that the university policies violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and asks the court to declare the various policies unconstitutional and requests an injunction to prohibit the policies from being used.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Austin, Texas, on behalf of Justice For All and two of its members, Jeremy Alder and A.E. Smith. The suit is against UT President Larry Faulkner and 17 other officials responsible for adopting and enforcing the speech restrictions on campus.