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University of Texas Protests

What role should Universities have in shaping dialogue on their campuses?

When does speech become destruction and theft?

How far is too far?

And is there a sneaky solution hiding in plain sight?

We will explore the recent UT protests, the protests in Columbia that sparked them, and a couple of solutions that might sound pretty crazy.

On April 17th, Congress scheduled the President of Columbia University to speak about antisemitism on college campuses. Unlike some of her fellow college presidents, the public expected her to take a hardline stand against antisemitism.

In response to a leaked outline of her testimony, an organization called Students for Justice in Palestine organized what they called an occupation of part of Columbia University. Students set up tents at 4 a.m. on the South Lawn to "occupy" Columbia University until they divested from Israel.

At 12 p.m., Columbia University offered the occupiers amnesty if they left the lawn before 9 p.m. At 1:20 p.m. the next day, more than 24 hours after the University's initial warning, the NYPD arrested the 108 students still left in the encampment under the University's authorization.

Immediately after the arrests, students, faculty, and staff reoccupied the western half of the South Lawn, filling the mainstream media for the next week. This event sparked similar protests nationwide at Universities with Students for Justice in Palestine clubs.

That's when our story reached the University of Texas. On April 20th, the Palestine Solidarity Committee announced their "Popular University for Gaza" event, later clarifying they would "[Reclaim] our space" and "occupy the South Lawn" in the "footsteps of our comrades at Columbia." The UT administration saw the initial announcement and requested a meeting with the PSC. The PSC agreed to meet but subsequently did not show up.

After the no-show, UT sent a letter to the PSC canceling the event. Then UT provided (in their own words) "an abbreviated list of rules related to conduct during protests, including typical consequences as a result of being arrested for criminal trespassing. This notice was provided as a courtesy to all protesters — students and non-University affiliated persons — to help them understand potential consequences for decisions to violate University rules."

It is under these conditions that the events of April 24th unfolded.

At 11:20 a.m., 20 minutes before the planned walk-out, police arrived at the campus, and protesters gathered a few minutes later.

About an hour later, the students started walking towards South Lawn to occupy it and set up tents. Police (University Police, Austin PD, and DPS) told the protesters to disperse or be arrested.

Most of the protestors continued to move towards South Lawn, and the police arrested nine of them.

At 2 p.m., the protestors started to set up tents on the South Lawn to create a "liberated space."

At that point, police started arresting more protestors and pushed the remaining ones off campus.

The police arrested a total of 55 protestors, 26 of whom did not affiliate themselves with UT.

Since this protest, PSC attempted to "occupy" the South Lawn again with very similar results.

The police arrested 79 protestors this time, 45 of whom were not associated with UT in any way. This time, there were also accusations of violence from the protestors and police, but none resulting in any permanent injury.

Besides the two attempts to occupy the south lawn, other organizations have held several Pro-Palestinian protests that occurred without a single arrest, including April 25th, the day after the initial occupation, and just this last Sunday.

That brings us to today.

So, what are the problems here? How does the First Amendment apply, and was it broken?

The first important detail is the big difference between Columbia and UT. Columbia is privately owned, and the state of Texas owns UT. That means Columbia has much more leeway to regulate speech. Just like HEB can say that you can't walk around their stores waving a vote Biden sign, Columbia can easily restrict speech on its campus.

Since Texas owns UT, the First Amendment applies. The Supreme Court ruled in Healy v James that state-owned colleges must protect speech, but they can restrict that speech's time, place, and manner as long as it is content-neutral.

In other words, students' speech couldn't "infringe reasonable campus rules, interrupt classes, or substantially interfere with the opportunity of other students to obtain an education."

This is open and shut, correct?

The police didn't arrest students until they violated those reasonable campus rules. The protestors clearly meant to substantially interfere with other students' opportunities to obtain an education.

There was no content discrimination, just the enforcement of campus rules.

Except I left out a whole part of the story.

On March 27th, Greg Abbott issued an executive order telling campuses to change their speech policies to "address the sharp rise in antisemitic speech and acts on university campuses and establish appropriate punishments, including expulsion."

That is viewpoint discrimination, which lends to a motive for the Governor's actions.

That and several social media posts are all it takes to muddle the waters in an otherwise clear situation.

So, how do we fix this situation? What is the solution?

The first solution is simple. Greg Abbott needs to rescind his executive order and issue a new one asking campuses to enforce their policies in a content-neutral way.

The following solution allows the Governor to address the antisemitism on college campuses, but it is quite radical.

He could make UT and other Texas colleges private. He could do this by putting them in their own non-profits and even giving them each an endowment so they can continue to offer scholarships to low-income students.

The icing on the cake is that he could be the person, along with the State Legislature, to write the rules for how each of these Universities function and choose their boards.

Texas could simultaneously free its public universities from the restrictions of the First Amendment and create the most extensive grouping of private conservative colleges in the world.

What do you think? Which solution do you prefer? Is the second going too far?

Let me know in the comments.

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