University of Texas Police Arrest Man for Standing Around Talking about Politics

By August 11, 2010

President Obama was at the University of Texas at Austin on Monday to give a speech and, as expected, the Presidential visit drew the usual complement of protesters and political activists. Among them was John Bush, the executive director of a group called Texans for Accountable Government, along with several others.

A video has been posted to YouTube showing Bush’s arrest at the hands of the UT police for what appears to be the crime of standing around on campus talking to students about his political views. Prepare to be appalled by what looks like a total and ridiculous overreaction on the part of the campus police handcuffing and taking away the very reasonable-sounding Bush, whose repeated questions about what law he is supposedly breaking go completely unanswered.

This video picks up right at the beginning of the arrest, so it’s not clear whether Bush was engaging in some sort of illegal activity beforehand–but it looks very unlikely. Bush is wearing a press pass and is acting quite calmly, and at no point do the officers appear to have told him what he is supposed to have done wrong and why he is being arrested. Once they find out he is not a student, they slap the cuffs on him and take him away.

Reports indicate that he was later charged with criminal trespass, a misdemeanor, which indicates to us that Bush was in fact not engaged in any kind of dangerous activity. FIRE understands that security is understandably higher at Presidential events, but we highly doubt that the Secret Service would have spent more than about ten seconds thinking about any threat John Bush might pose to the President’s safety, and it doesn’t look like the UT police department had anything substantive on him either.

Now, John Bush is neither a UT student nor a faculty member, so his case is not within FIRE’s purview. (FIRE’s mission, which we adhere to very strictly, is to assist students and faculty members at colleges and universities, not outside individuals except insofar as they are invited guests.) But as an indicator of the attitude that the University of Texas and its police department takes towards free speech, this situation is quite depressing.

The state of the law governing what rights outside members of the public have to engage in free speech on public college campuses (as opposed to students and faculty, who clearly have the right to free speech on public campuses) is unsettled, but it’s hard to accept that Bush was engaging in criminal behavior. Indeed, even if a court were to rule that UT has the perfect legal right to arrest Bush for standing around and talking about politics on campus, doing so makes a mockery of the idea of a university–unless your idea of a university is a place where students hear only the viewpoints held by members of the university community and no more.

The taxpaying citizens of Texas help fund the University of Texas. Is it so unreasonable that they might be allowed to step onto campus and have a peaceful word with students about important topics every once in a while?

Schools: University of Texas at Austin