Torch readers may remember that last fall, in the midst of the election season, the University of Texas at Austin (UT) threatened to punish two students if they did not remove political campaign signs that they had placed in their dormitory room window. Thankfully, after national media attention, the university came to its senses quickly and suspended its rule banning signs in students’ dorm room windows. This week, the university has announced that it will permanently suspend the rule.
This represents an important victory for freedom of expression at UT. In the case of the two students last fall, the university’s enforcement of its rule had the unfortunate consequence of restricting clearly protected political expression. The episode was part of a disturbing trend across college campuses that FIRE saw last year involving suppression of much protected political speech and activity. The climate on campus became so bad that FIRE deemed it necessary to issue a new Policy Statement on Political Activity on Campus in order to clarify to colleges and universities the rights enjoyed by students and faculty with regard to political expression.
Moreover, as Will wrote last October, the UT ban would have had a difficult time meeting the legal threshold for a reasonable time, place, and manner restriction. Such a restriction must be content-neutral, must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest, and must provide “ample alternative channels” for the expression at issue. Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781 (1989). To borrow from Will’s analysis:
The real question for me, however, is what significant government interest does this dorm signage ban further? Graves seems to suggest that UT has a general desire to maintain an aesthetic order, rather than allow signs being “plastered around campus willy-nilly.” I’m not at all sure that this generalized desire for order counts as a significant government interest-but I’m also sure that if this matter went to litigation, UT would likely scramble to think of better reasons. It also seems a bit of a stretch to suggest, as Graves does, that signs in dorm room windows are the aesthetic equivalent of signs posted on a random campus wall.
Thankfully, UT students will no longer have to fear censorship or punishment under this policy. By permanently suspending the window posting ban, UT President William Powers, Jr. followed the recommendation of a report by a committee of faculty members, students, and administrators:
The panel concluded in its report that it was essential to favor free speech in any debate about window postings. The university’s lawyers, as well as School of Law faculty members who specialize in the First Amendment, had warned that restrictions would be open to legal challenge.
“Students are free to communicate their ideas vigorously; those who are exposed to such ideas, whether in the classroom, the grounds of the campus, or in the residence halls, should tolerate the expression even of views that they find offensive or unacceptable,” the report said. “The best response to offensive speech is more free speech.”
We’re pleased that the words of the university committee were heeded and that the campus climate at UT will be more favorable toward freedom of expression.