The University of Texas (UT) has agreed to abolish its bias response team to resolve a First Amendment lawsuit that alleged the university intentionally chilled student speech on campus.
The Campus Climate Response Team (CCRT), according to UT’s website, was formed to help students report incidents of alleged bias, including “hateful comments” or “prejudiced behavior.”
In 2018, free speech advocacy group Speech First sued UT, arguing that the university “created an elaborate investigatory and disciplinary apparatus to suppress, punish, and deter speech that other students deem ‘offensive,’ ‘biased,’ ‘uncivil,’ or ‘rude.'”
The university in June 2019 won an initial victory when a district court justice ruled that Speech First lacked the standing to sue for failing to clearly show that students were censoring themselves in fear of punishment.
In October, however, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals revised the lower court’s judgment, holding that UT students represented by Speech First had standing to bring the case. Circuit Judge Edith Jones, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, described the CCRT in her decision as a “clenched fist in the velvet glove of student speech regulation.”
The prolonged legal battle came to an end in a settlement last week, according to Speech First. As part of the settlement agreement, the university will dismantle the CCRT and revise its speech policies, including the internet policy that prohibited sending “rude or harassing correspondence,” and its dormitory rules about “harassment and incivility.”
The settlement also said UT maintains the right to “devise an alternative” to CCRT, and that Speech First is free to challenge that alternative.
“We are delighted that students at the University of Texas will be able to fully exercise their First Amendment rights without credibly fearing disciplinary action from their administration,” Nicole Neily, president of Speech First, said in a statement. “Public universities that maintain policies that have both the purpose and the effect of chilling student speech will be held accountable.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also applauded the settlement on Twitter, calling it a victory for free speech.
“Political correctness is being ended at the University of Texas at Austin,” Abbott wrote. “UT agreed to disband its absurd PC police and end policies that suppress speech on campus. This is consistent with the campus free speech law I signed last session.”
In 2019, the state legislature passed a bill requiring public universities across Texas to guarantee free speech and debate to their students, including spaces for students to meet and deliberate, and equal funding for student groups.