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Texas governor signs unconstitutional bills into law

The Texas State Capitol Building in Austin, Texas.

FIRE has written twice recently about two bills in the Texas legislature that seriously threaten free speech and due process rights at college campuses in the state. We also sent a letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office asking him to veto the bills. On Friday, however, Abbott signed those bills into law.

As a brief recap, both pieces of legislation — SB 212 and HB 1735 — use an unconstitutionally overbroad definition of sexual harassment that lacks the fundamental requirement that the conduct in question be objectively offensive to a reasonable person. SB 212 compounds the problem further by requiring all college and university employees to report any conduct they reasonably believe satisfies that definition to the institution’s Title IX apparatus. Failure to do so subjects the employee to termination and criminal misdemeanor charges, which carry potential penalties of up to $2,000, 180 days in jail, or both.

HB 1735 will take effect Sept. 1. Most of SB 212’s provisions also take effect on Sept. 1, while the bill’s criminal penalties take effect Jan. 1, 2020. This means Texas’s students and faculty will be forced to navigate new, unconstitutional speech codes this academic year that will inevitably lead to an explosion of frivolous investigations into protected speech, self-censorship, and possibly even jail time for faculty members who run afoul of the new law.

If any student or faculty member experiences deprivation of their free speech or due process rights because of their institution’s enforcement of either of these two laws, we encourage them to reach out to FIRE to see if there is any way we can help.

Unconstitutional speech restrictions have fallen time, and time, and time again in Texas. These new laws will likely deservedly suffer the same fate. FIRE is committed to ensuring that student and faculty speech rights remain fully protected at institutions of higher education in the state, despite these new statutes.

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