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Texas tramples First Amendment rights with police crackdown of pro-Palestinian protests

More than 50 arrested after state police storm protestors at University of Texas at Austin.
Protestor arrested at University of Texas at Austin during a pro-Palestinian protest on April 24, 2024

Ricardo B. Brazziell / American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK

Protestor being arrested by state police at the University of Texas at Austin on April 24, 2024.

Today, FIRE sent a letter to Jay Hartzell, president of the University of Texas at Austin, in response to the disturbing display of force and free speech violations that occurred on UT Austin’s campus yesterday afternoon. 

A group called the Palestinian Solidarity Committee of Austin planned to stage a “Popular University for Gaza” walk-out just before noon on April 24. Their plan, which the committee announced the day before, was to march to the campus’ South Lawn, where teach-ins, study breaks, pizza, and an art workshop would take place along with a talk from a guest speaker.

However, at the request of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the university, the protestors were met with a phalanx of law enforcement officers — including campus police and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers — who proceeded to order the protestors to disperse. This led to more than 50 arrests and countless violations of student and faculty free speech rights — including a photojournalist with a local Fox affiliate station whom officers tackled to the ground before imposing trespassing charges.

Mounted state police confront protestors at University of Texas at Austin
Mounted state police confront protestors at University of Texas at Austin on April 24, 2024. (Ricardo B. Brazziell / American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK)

The tension surrounding the event had been brewing for some time. On March 27, Gov. Abbott issued an executive order targeting anti-Semitism at state universities, dictating amendments to their speech policies to “address the sharp rise in antisemitic speech and acts on university campuses and establish appropriate punishments, including expulsion.” 

Threatening expulsion for expression that some — or even many — may find offensive is a speech-chilling encroachment on students’ First Amendment rights. This is especially true when “anti-Semitism” is defined to target core political speech — such as criticism of Israel — which FIRE has warned Abbott’s order effectively does.

Abbott’s order also named student organizations specifically — including the Palestine Solidarity Committee — giving the distinct impression that the viewpoints these groups espouse are at the center of the governor’s crosshairs in particular.

FIRE’s letter demands that UT Austin urgently ensure all remaining charges against peaceful protesters are dropped, and cease any further pursuit of disciplinary sanctions against them.

This impression turned out to be correct. On Tuesday evening, the day before the planned protest, UT Austin sent Palestine Solidarity Committee a letter informing it that their planned walk-out would not be permitted due to a “declared intent to violate our policies and rules, and disrupt our campus operations.” The letter cited as evidence the Committee’s social media posts, which stated its intention to “take back our university and force our administration to divest, for the people of Gaza!” However, as FIRE’s letter notes, UT Austin’s claims that the Committee’s comments are indicative of an intent to disrupt the university's operations are “speculative and unsubstantiated,” as is its claim that the protestors intended “to occupy campus.” As the Supreme Court ruled more than 50 years ago in Hess v. Indiana, figurative language like this cannot be punished as intending violence.

UT Austin is a public, state-run university, and as a result it is open to free public expression. How can someone unlawfully occupy a space they have every legal right to be in? How can acting on the First Amendment right to gather and demonstrate in this public space be reasonably interpreted as an intent to “disrupt and create disorder,” as the statement UT Austin released today claims? Six months ago, UT Austin seemed quite aware of its policies regarding free speech on campus. What changed?

The  university isn’t the only one seeming to suffer from amnesia. Back in 2019, Gov. Abbott rightly made a big show of signing a law that, in his own words, “protects free speech on college campuses.” That law explicitly ensures that “the common outdoor areas of the institution’s campus are deemed traditional public forums,” guarantees the right “to assemble or distribute written material without a permit or other permission” from campus authorities, and establishes “disciplinary sanctions for students, student organizations, or faculty who unduly interfere with the expressive activities of others on campus.”

It seems Abbott isn’t clear on what does and does not constitute free speech on campus.

TAKE ACTION: Tell Governor Abbott to Protect the First Amendment on College Campuses

Once police began arresting and attempting to disperse protestors from UT Austin’s campus yesterday, Gov. Abbott posted about it on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter: 

“Arrests being made right now & will continue until the crowd disperses,” he wrote. “These protesters belong in jail.” He added that “Antisemitism will not be tolerated in Texas. Period.”

However, as former Congressman Justin Amash pointed out on X, “A governor can’t lawfully arrest people for protesting or for ‘hate speech.’” And that is precisely what Gov. Abbott and UT Austin did. As FIRE’s letter states:

As a public institution, any university restriction on student expression must comport with the First Amendment’s “bedrock principle” of viewpoint neutrality. The university may establish and enforce reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of speech or expressive activity, but its rules must be viewpoint- and content-neutral, narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, leave open ample alternative channels for communication, and—perhaps most importantly—not selectively enforced based on a speaker’s viewpoint.

But Abbott and UT Austin’s response to Wednesday’s protests was anything but neutral. FIRE’s letter continues:

Instead, it appears UT Austin based its response on objections to the protesters’ expressed support for Gaza and not any planned—or actual—violation of university policy or applicable law. The protestors gathered in an outdoor common area of campus traditionally open to public expression. Planned events included study breaks and ended with an art workshop, which are hardly intrinsically disruptive or violent activities—despite UT Austin’s attempts to frame the plans as such, and as violative of university policy. Those plans stand at odds with Gov. Abbott’s statement during the protest that participants in “hate-filled, antisemitic protests” should be jailed and expelled, his direction of DPS troopers to campus, and last month’s Executive Order specifically targeting anti-Semitism, which along with UT Austin’s actions paint a clear picture of state actors executing a multi-pronged campaign to censor disfavored views.

Abbott and UT Austin’s egregious response to peaceful protest and protected speech on campus doesn’t just violate the very state law Gov. Abbott signed — and to which, as a public university, UT Austin is beholden. It also violates the fundamental First Amendment rights of all citizens, including college students and faculty at a public university, to speak freely and loudly on issues of interest and concern. Such a disproportionate show of force meted out based on the content of protected speech is flagrantly unconstitutional, not to mention excessive and unfair, no matter how offensive, hateful, or wrong those in power may consider the speech.

Thus far, the County Attorney has declined to prosecute any of the charges it has reviewed against those arrested on campus. FIRE’s letter demands that UT Austin urgently ensure all remaining charges against peaceful protesters are dropped, and cease any further pursuit of disciplinary sanctions against them.

FIRE has given UT Austin until close of business on Tuesday, April 30 to respond.

As always, we will post updates as the story progresses.

Join FIRE in demanding that Gov. Abbott recommit to upholding First Amendment rights.


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