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UT Austin protests challenge governor’s free speech vow

A protestor is detained at UT Austin on Wednesday. Credit: Getty

April 25, 2024 - 7:15pm

Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott is once again back-pedalling on campus free speech in the name of fighting antisemitism.

“Antisemitism will not be tolerated in Texas. Period,” he wrote in a social media post on Wednesday, alongside footage of state troopers dispersing a campus protest. “Students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled.”

The Texas Department of Public Safety, on Abbott’s orders, arrested more than 30 students on Wednesday during a pro-Palestine protest at the University of Texas at Austin. One journalist, who was carrying a large camera, was pulled to the ground by state troopers and detained. DPS mentioned criminal activity, including trespassing, in a press statement, but free speech advocates have portrayed their response as excessive and a violation of the First Amendment, particularly in light of Abbott’s focus on the content of protesters’ speech.

“This chilling show of force is a disproportionate response to an apparently peaceful protest,” Will Creeley, Legal Director at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), told UnHerd. “Sending in a phalanx of law enforcement threatens protected speech where it should be at its most free: a public university like UT Austin. Unfortunately, Governor Abbott’s public commentary makes his disregard for the First Amendment’s protection of political speech clear.”

Police have been arresting protesters at anti-Israel demonstrations across the US, and campus administrators are growing increasingly impatient with the unruly events. But university leaders have made a point of presenting arrests and suspensions as a neutral application of the rules and an attempt to restore student safety. This includes staff at Columbia University, where more than 100 were arrested after the school’s president was grilled by members of Congress over campus antisemitism. Abbott has taken the opposite tack, explicitly portraying his actions as ideologically motivated.

Conservative and libertarian commentators were quick to criticise the governor, both for violating protesters’ free speech and for failing to use his powers to deal with issues they consider more pressing, such as illegal immigration. Other conservatives praised the crackdown on protesters, including two Congressional Republicans.

Months earlier, Abbott ordered public universities to address antisemitism in their speech policies in an executive order singling out specific pro-Palestine student groups.

Yet back in 2019, under different political tides, the governor promoted free expression in universities. “Some colleges are banning free speech on college campuses. Well, no more, because I’m about to sign a law that protects free speech on college campuses in Texas,” he said five years ago. “Shouldn’t have to do it. First Amendment guarantees it. Now, it’s law in Texas.”

The Governor of Texas’s office has been contacted for comment


is UnHerd’s US correspondent.

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Paul T
Paul T
25 days ago

Freedom of speech does not include the right to criminally offensive hate speech. Why does Unherd keep confusing people speaking freely, responsibly, (since freedoms are not absolute and come with responsibilities) with people abusing the right to free speech to stir up hatred against others?

T Bone
T Bone
25 days ago
Reply to  Paul T

There is no such thing under the US Constitution as “hate speech.” Its a term the American Left borrowed from Europe to silence their opposition. Hate speech is often conflated with threats and personal intimidation which is not protected.

There are time, place and manner restrictions. These “protests” are open attempts to disrupt University operations. I don’t know why some Conservatives are running with the Left’s language when there’s a perfectly valid reason to limit disruption.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
25 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

I agree. This has nothing to do with freedom of speech and everything to do with disruption of university operations. Moreover, these protestors are themselves not interested in free speech, their primary aim being to quell all opposing views on the Hamas-Israeli issue.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
25 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

Not even. The business of university is to exchange ideas, however distasteful, however much you disagree. Those students using the (taxpayer supported) campus to chant ‘river to the sea’ should enjoy every 1st amendment protection. The whole ‘time, place and manner’ argument is just more prevaricating. Let them loose. Let the KKK loose. Let everyone loose. ESPECIALLY on university campuses.
If you don’t back them, your ideals mean nothing. And when the leftist hate mobs come for you because you missed their 67th gender, you really have no leg to stand on.

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
24 days ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

I fully support free speech. Including allowing antisemitic, non-violent chants. But I don’t have the right to protest anywhere and any time! What about your living room at 2 am? You may call it prevaricating but it is a necessary balancing of individual rights to limit the time, place, and manner of protests.

T Bone
T Bone
24 days ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Setting up tent city encampments all over campus that clog up others right to public space is hardly speech. Under your formulation, anyone at any time could bring throw down their stuff and make a home in the park. They could bring out amps and crank out music at all hours of the day and night.

Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
24 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

Good points. What constitutes “hate speech” is in the eye of the beholder, and unavoidably implicates the beholder’s political and ideological biases. From what I’ve read, most campuses have in place content-neutral policies that draw a line between peaceful protest and behaviors that disrupt classes and other university functions. It seems many failed to enforce them from the outset, though, and are now paying the price.

Last edited 2 days ago by Colorado UnHerd
David Giles
David Giles
25 days ago
Reply to  Paul T

Actually freedom of speech is freedom to indulge in ‘hate speech’. Incitement to violence, preventing others from going about their business on account if their identity, encouraging others to prevent people going about their business: yes, freedom of speech spent encompass those. ‘Hate speech’ though: allowable, if horrible.

As for ‘criminally’; only when illiberals choose to criminalise things.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
25 days ago
Reply to  David Giles

Exactly. I think these kids are idiots. I disagree with most of what they chant. But I absolutely defend their right to chant it.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
25 days ago

Is anyone surprised that a far right extremist like Abbott will ignore his free speech principles (ha!) and the US constitution the moment someone says something he doesn’t like? Of course not!

Janis Barnard
Janis Barnard
24 days ago

Could we PLEASE stop calling people like Abbot far-right extremists? I m so tired of the hyperbole today – if you aren’t a progressive liberal, you’re a right wing extremist. Yes, Abbott is pushing some limits these days and I do believe he’s bordering on the performative, but some of these limits are needing to finally be pushed. Consider our borders. I’m a native Texan in my 70th decade. I actually remember what true right wing extremism looked like once upon a time. And as they say, for the record, I’ve never voted for Abbott or any other Republican governor in my life. Although given the politics of the Democratic Party today, it looks like I’m going to have to either find an alternative or stay home.

Andrew Holmes
Andrew Holmes
24 days ago

I’ll assume you are being serious. The Texas free speech law that Abbott celebrated was instituted to protect the expression of a wide range of opinions. Texas had the same problem as a host of universities in other states. Speech other than the current woke ideology was attacked and suppressed. Suppression included the hecklers veto and the like. Trespass and actions designed to disrupt the functioning of the university isn’t free speech. What’s to like in criminal conduct?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
25 days ago

I’m sympathetic to the free speech case. We have to support the freedom of people to say things we disagree with. Hate speech is another thing altogether. There are criminal laws against that. If the university supports the right of students to protest on their property, I support that as well. But threatening other people is altogether different as well. If the mob was spouting hateful things or legitimately intimidating people, it needs to be shut down.

Rob N
Rob N
24 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Hate speech is the whole point of legal free speech. Threats etc are quite different

R Wright
R Wright
25 days ago

Free speech principles go out of the window when AIPAC’s interests are threatened.

Nathan Sapio
Nathan Sapio
24 days ago

So you are defending people linking arms to push one group of people out of public spaces out of hate for their ethnic origin? Declaring support for mass murder of a group of people? How is that civic protest?

Would you have defended the white protesters who were against black integration? My guess is yes.

Can you call evil evil in its time?

David Barnett
David Barnett
24 days ago

The reporting is rather light on what the anti-Israel Protesters are doing. (I don’t say “pro-Palestinian”, because I don’t think they actually know or care about the issue itself). If they are merely chanting hateful slogans in the public square , that is one thing. If they are intimidating other students, and disrupting their right to go about their own business, that is quite another. It would be nice to get some clarity.
I suspect the UT Austin protesters are more on the intimidation side, like the London “protesters” where, apparently, a Kippah-wearing Jew leaving synagogue couldn’t cross the street without the police fearing for his safety (and their inability to protect him).

Janis Barnard
Janis Barnard
24 days ago
Reply to  David Barnett

Good comment. As I’ve said elsewhere, Texas is my home. I’ve looked at every bit of city, state, local news I can find to learn what exactly the students did, without success. Just a lot of self righteous indignation about the presence of law enforcement and some unexplained arrests. Journalists should do better, but today it would obviously interfere with their agenda
I’m not an Abbott supporter, but I’m also not going to knee-jerk condemn him if the students broke a local or state law or violated a campus regulation or city ordinance. Peaceful does not automatically equal legal. I cannot “peacefully” set up a tent in your house and block your front door just because I want to.