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Speech First Settlement and Disbanding of the CCRT

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Background Summary  

On Dec. 22, 2020, UT Austin agreed to a settlement with the organization Speech First leading to the dismissal of a lawsuit filed against the university in 2018 over language in several of its policies related to freedom of expression. Prior to the settlement, UT Austin had already amended part of its verbal harassment policy and had removed provisions that Speech First contested in its informational technology policy and its residence hall manual. Under the settlement, the university agreed further:

  • Not to reinstate the previously deleted and amended provisions.
  • To delete its policy on Hate and Bias Incidents.
  • To make additional changes to its definition of verbal harassment.
  • To discontinue the university’s Campus Climate Response Team (CCRT).

The university defended its approach — including the CCRT and the Hate and Bias Incident Policy — for two years. The university won its first case in the ongoing litigation in June 2019, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. But the university lost an appeal before the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Oct. 2020, which precipitated the decision to reach a settlement.

Statements

Statement on the settlement from University Spokesperson J.B. Bird, Dec. 23, 2020:

“The university is firmly committed to continuing to protect and promote the free speech of all students. The settlement deals with university policies and ensuring speech is not chilled. As the court noted in its 2019 ruling, there was no evidence students were disciplined, sanctioned or investigated for their speech. To the contrary, the case included strong evidence of the university protecting the speech rights of conservative students and guests on campus. Under the settlement, the university accepts the policy changes sought by Speech First and believes these changes will further promote free expression on our campus, which is at the heart of what we do as an academic institution.”

Statement on the CCRT from University Spokesperson J.B. Bird, Dec. 27, 2020:

“The university agreed to discontinue the CCRT in response to First Amendment issues that the courts identified. In keeping with our commitment to promote constitutionally-protected freedom of expression on campus, the university will seek other ways to foster open dialogue on campus climate and issues so all voices can be heard.”

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