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Defending Students’ Right to Speak Freely

Speech First v. Fenves

Case Status

Date Filed

August 19, 2019

Last Step

VICTORY! Fifth Circuit allows the case to proceed.

Next Step


Case Overview

Speech First, a nonprofit group dedicated to defending the free speech rights of college students, challenged two policies at the University of Texas at Austin.  First, the University maintains several vague and overbroad speech codes. Its campuswide ban on “verbal harassment” covers, among other things, “insults,” “ridicule,” and “personal attacks” based on “ideology, political views, or political affiliation.” Students who violate any of these speech codes can be reprimanded, suspended, or expelled.  Second, the University operates a bias-response team that it calls the “Campus Climate Response Team,” or CCRT.  A literal speech police comprised of disciplinarians and police officers, the CCRT investigates “bias incidents” on campus.

After denying Speech First’s motion for a preliminary injunction, the district court dismissed the case sua sponte for lack of Article III standing.  The district court held that Speech First lacked standing to challenge the University’s speech codes.  It faulted Speech First for keeping its members “anonymous” and for identifying only “broad categories of speech,” rather than “specific evidence of the speech in which the students wish to engage.”

The Goldwater Institute, joined by the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Cato Institute, filed an amicus brief in support of Speech First at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  That brief focuses on how the district court erred when it held that it was not objectively reasonable for conservative students to chill their speech under the University’s policies.  As the brief demonstrates, conservative students around the country are regularly subjected to discipline, suspensions, forced apologies, and defunding when they express conservative viewpoints on campus.

If Speech First is successful in its appeal, the case will be remanded to the district court so that it may proceed on the merits.

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