UT System Adopts Free Speech Policy, but Students at UT Dallas are Already Speaking Freely

Some faculty and students at the University of Texas at Dallas already feel like their free speech rights are protected.
Some faculty and students at the University of Texas at Dallas already feel like their free speech rights are protected. University of Texas at Dallas
In November the University of Texas System Board of Regents adopted a version of the Chicago Statement, calling it a formal commitment to freedom of speech on its campuses. Released by the University of Chicago in 2015, the Chicago Statement, formally known as the Report on the Committee on Freedom of Expression, details guiding principles for the protection of free speech and has been adopted by dozens of academic institutions.

According to a statement released by the regents, this affirmation serves as “the UT System’s formal commitment to free speech and expression,” and the Chicago Statement “has become a gold standard for institutions that wish to show their commitment to free speech and expression in higher education.”

The protection of free speech is certainly a noble endeavor, and doing so on college campuses is crucial. You’ll have a tough time finding any serious person arguing to have their voice stifled. It's worth noting, however, the statement qualifies that “it is not the proper role of the UT System or the UT institutions to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

OK, now we’re getting somewhere subjective. You say right, I say wrong. You say something is problematic, someone else says it’s provocative.

So what does the Chicago Statement really mean for the various UT campuses around the state, and how vital is it for a university to make a public display of adopting it?

For the University of Texas at Dallas, the adoption of the Chicago Statement isn’t likely to change much in terms of life on campus. In fact, it could be argued that the action wasn't necessary at all.

The local UT system outpost has made a point to address the protection of free speech in recent years and has shown a willingness among its student body to engage in the sort of discourse the Chicago Statement encourages. According to Ravi Prakash, the speaker of the Academic Senate at UTD and a professor of computer science, the Chicago Statement does not affect the school very much.

He says he learned of the UT system’s adoption of the Chicago Statement through the news, just like everyone else. He also noted that in 2018 the UT system’s Faculty Advisory Council drafted its own free speech guidelines by defining “Discovery,” “Dissent,” and “Debate” following the UT System regents’ earlier rule regarding speech and assembly.

Prakash says the UT Faculty Advisory Council believes that “the UT System, with its size and reach, is one of the leading public university systems in the country, and the UT System Regents' Rule 40501 already spoke clearly about freedom of speech and the need to regulate it under certain situations. So, a UT system-specific statement would be better suited for our campuses than simply adopting the Chicago Statement.”

Better yet, Katie Silverman and Natasha Kokkodil, co-presidents of UTD’s chapter of Texas Rising, think the campus population has already created a safe environment for freedom of speech. Texas Rising is a statewide progressive student group that looks to drive voter registration as well as engage with campuses on reproductive rights, women’s rights, voting rights, LGBTQ+ rights and immigration issues.

To be certain, the group is on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum from UTD’s conservative-leaning Turning Point USA chapter or Comets for the Preborn, an anti-abortion group on campus.

Kokkodil thinks the adoption of the Chicago Statement is little more than an attempt by a public university system to appease alumni and possible donors. But there have been times when campus events have ignited controversy and devolved into what some label as possible hate speech territory.

“I do believe free speech is important,” Silverman says. “But I do believe free speech can be pushed to the limit in a dangerous way. Free speech should be protected, but not hate speech. We do engage in conversations outside of our own ideological scope, so we’re not rigid in that way. We just want to make sure the student body has a healthy way to expose themselves to information.”

Not necessarily everyone has always believed that free speech was being protected by UT Dallas. In 2017 popular conservative YouTube personality Steven Crowder was made to leave campus while filming interviews about the Second Amendment. At the time, the university explained that Crowder had failed to obtain proper permission to film on campus in advance, while some students thought it was the YouTuber’s political views that spurred campus security into action.

Crowder appeared on campus again in 2019, this time at the invitation of the College Republicans of UTD, to film interviews about the building of a wall along the U.S./Mexico border. Silverman says that visit “did not go over well” with a large part of the student body, which she says “has a huge population of international students.”

"I do believe free speech is important. But I do believe free speech can be pushed to the limit in a dangerous way." – Katie Silverman, Texas Rising

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Silverman also notes that when a controversial speaker is hosted on campus, no one should be surprised that free speech goes both ways. “Controversial speakers like Crowder can disrupt the peace on campus, and sometimes their intention is to disrupt.”

Perhaps it’s both fitting and telling that a compelling exchange of ideas followed Crowder’s January 2019 appearance. A letter to the editor of The Mercury, the university’s student-run newspaper, takes aim at a previous article by a reporter who opposed Crowder’s views and the way he expressed them.

Submitted by a student named Alexander Christie, who says he organized the College Republicans event with Crowder, the letter says that Crowder’s approach and stances didn't disrupt or endanger any students, although there were protesters. He suggested the event provided a point of engaging conversation for those who might sit on opposing sides of political debate. He closed his letter by inviting anyone who might disagree with him to attend a club meeting for further discussion.

Conducting counterprotests is also a way for a dissenting voice to be heard and is protected as free speech on campus. That’s a vital reason Silverman thinks that for the most part, the campus is a secure place for groups with different views to express themselves.

A “healthy discourse” is important, she says, and if the student body is kept out of harm's way, then who needs a new official statement, especially if campus leaders have already addressed the issue?

“Personally, I don’t think my right to free speech has been infringed upon here,” she says. “If there’s an anti-abortion rally on campus, there is usually a swift counterprotest, which should be expected.” Kokkodil adds that “when a speaker is controversial and they know they are controversial, they should expect backlash. That’s free speech.”
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Kelly Dearmore

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