On Monday, the University of Texas-Austin (UT-Austin) chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) announced that it would host a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant” event on Wednesday, during which volunteers for the group would wear a label stating “illegal immigrant,” and other students would have the opportunity to “capture” them for a $25 gift card bounty. The aim of the event, YCT President Lorenzo Garcia said, was to spark debate and promote conversation about immigration issues. The YCT chapter at UT-Austin is no stranger to using provocative tactics in order to get people talking about issues, having previously conducted an “Affirmative Action Bake Sale” event (a well-known form of satirical protest against affirmative action).
Backlash was swift and came from all directions. Users on Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere began to decry the event as hateful and divisive, and several politicians chimed in to express their distaste for the planned event. The event’s Facebook page, now removed, also exploded with angry comments, as reported at The Huffington Post.
The First Amendment does not insulate speakers from being criticized or from suffering social consequences for their speech. Indeed, the remedy for “bad” speech is more speech. And to some extent, this is precisely what occurred: in response to YCT’s announcement of the event the group was widely lambasted, opposing arguments were made, and many drew opinions about the group’s members based on the planned event.
While social sanctions and criticism are undoubtedly fair game, a more troubling response came from Gregory Vincent, UT-Austin’s Vice President for Diversity. While describing free speech as “one of the University’s core values,” Vincent decried YCT’s plan to exercise their First Amendment rights “to the detriment of others.” But simply hearing speech you disagree with shouldn’t be seen as a “detriment” in a free society. On the contrary, not only is it beneficial for speech to be out in the open rather than suppressed but the societal value of free speech in general outweighs the negative effects of any particular offensive or hurtful speech.
Because Vincent appears to acknowledge that YCT would be acting within its First Amendment rights to stage the event, his next statement is all the more troubling:
If the members of YCT carry out their plan … they are willfully ignoring the honor code and contributing to the degradation of our campus culture.
Violations of the honor code at UT-Austin are subject to a range of penalties up to and including expulsion. So Vincent’s statement suggests that regardless of whether a student’s speech is protected by the Constitution, it may result in disciplinary action at UT-Austin—a public institution legally bound by the First Amendment. (Of course, this is nothing new, since UT-Austin in fact has numerous policies that infringe on protected speech, earning it a “red light” speech code rating.)
Apparently, the UT-Austin administration’s threats were effective. On Tuesday morning, YCT announced that it was cancelling the event in a statement from Garcia:
After the University President and the Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement released statements denouncing the event we planned as violating the university’s honor code, I spoke with our chapter’s members, and they are both concerned that the university will retaliate against them and that the protest against the event could create a safety issue for our volunteers. [Emphasis added.]
UT-Austin had no business making thinly-veiled (arguably, not veiled at all) threats against students planning to engage in political theater. Such threats have detrimental effects on the community’s willingness to debate, curtail the free exchange of ideas on campus, and seriously risk chilling protected speech. That is the very intention of making those threats. Indeed, YCT members chose to censor themselves rather than risk potential disciplinary action by the school. If the administration of UT-Austin wanted to distance itself from the event, it could have criticized the event and left it at that. But too often, administrators threaten to sanction students pursuant to those codes when denouncing unpopular student speech in hopes that students will decide to silence themselves rather than answer to a campus kangaroo court.
Unfortunately, the UT-Austin administration is not the only group ready to curtail YCT’s rights. An online change.org petition demanding that UT-Austin revoke YCT’s recognition as an official student group has already gathered more than 4,000 signatures. The petition takes an unsettlingly flippant attitude toward free speech (which it puts in scare quotes, as if the idea of free speech is not real, or is subject to being ignored when the popular mood calls for it). The petition notes that “while it is well and good to be ‘protecting free speech’, the YCT group is marked by their incredibly insensitive, inhumane demonstrations that they stage with stunning precision.”
Yes, it is absolutely well and good to “protect free speech.” In fact, it’s so well and good to protect free speech that UT-Austin is constitutionally required to do so. But the First Amendment has no general “insensitivity” exception that would strip speech of protection based on the hurt feelings of listeners. Quite the opposite, as the Supreme Court noted when it stated that “[s]peech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea.” Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949).
The petition continues:
While we, the undersigned, acknowledge and respect the university’s role in allowing a diverse range of political organizations and demonstrations under the banner of “free speech”, the University has an obligation to its students to roundly denounce harmful, alienating narratives and, in doing so, make the University a safe environment to historically oppressed groups. …Therefor [sic], we formally request that the Dean of Students revoke the YCT’s status as an officially registered student organization.
Again, it seems that the petitioners misconstrue the binding nature of the First Amendment. UT-Austin does not merely “allow” a diverse range of viewpoints out of the goodness of its institutional heart, nor is it free to cease doing so when a group of students feels insulted, demeaned, or alienated. A public university is bound by the U.S. Constitution, and may not deny recognition or funding to a student group based on the views it espouses. See Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 836 (1995) (“For the University, by regulation, to cast disapproval on particular viewpoints of its students risks the suppression of free speech and creative inquiry in one of the vital centers for the Nation’s intellectual life, its college and university campuses.”). We are hopeful that the UT-Austin administration remembers this admonishment when it receives the petition, adheres to its self-professed respect for the First Amendment, and rejects this unwise and unconstitutional demand.
Finally, the petition concludes with the assertion that
[s]hould the university fail revoke [sic] the YCT’s status as an officially registered student organization, it will be making the implicit claim that not only are outlandishly racist events ignored by the tower, but that all students of color are fair targets for future “hunts”.
As the UT-Austin administration strongly denounced the planned event, it is difficult to support the claim that the school would be “ignoring” anything by failing to revoke YCT’s status as a recognized student group. Nor would UT-Austin be lending its imprimatur to the event, unless the petitioners also believe that by virtue of allowing the Women’s Resource Agency to perform The Vagina Monologues on campus, UT-Austin is endorsing the exceedingly controversial ideas contained in, say, the segment of the play called “The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could.”
It is unfortunate that the UT-Austin administration spoke out of both sides of its mouth—recognizing the right to free speech while insinuating that the students might be punished for speaking—when simply distancing itself from the event would have adhered to the optimal “solution to bad speech is more speech” approach. Equally distressing, however, is the petitioners’ dismissive attitude toward the First Amendment and the zeal with which they ask UT-Austin to censor those who offend them. It is instances such as this that remind us that FIRE has much work to do in reversing the trend toward “unlearning liberty.”