UT System approves commitment to free speech, even if most students find that speech “offensive” or “immoral”

Protesters gather in front of the UT Tower to protest President Donald Trump's inauguration in 2017. The UT System Board of Regents approved a commitment to free speech Thursday. (Shelby Knowles For The Texas Tribune, Shelby Knowles For The Texas Tribune)

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

The University of Texas System Board of Regents adopted a formal policy Thursday expressing its commitment to free speech on its campuses.

The board unanimously approved adopting the Chicago Statement, a declaration of commitment to free speech that was penned for the University of Chicago in 2014.

According to the statement, the board “guarantees all members of the UT System the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” It reads, “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most individual members of the UT System community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”

The UT System reserves the ability to restrict speech that breaks the law or constitutes a threat, among other examples.

“Why the Chicago Statement? As my friend, [Purdue University President] Mitch Daniels said, when Purdue was one of the early institutions to adopt it, we didn’t see how we could improve upon the language, and I think we share that sentiment,” UT System Chancellor James Milliken said to the Board of Regents at its regular meeting.

The statement “does reinforce the board’s already existing commitment to free speech on our campuses,” Milliken added, “but I think it’s an important statement from the governing board for the university system.”

The University of Texas Senate of College Councils, an intercollegiate student government at University of Texas at Austin, endorsed the board’s decision.

“The Senate of College Councils supports free speech for individuals to advocate for their needs, especially at a time when political actors are attacking the academic freedom to teach and to learn,” it said in a statement from Communications Director Vaishnavi Kothakonda. “In the future, we hope to work with the University to ensure that free speech applies to all students and faculty.”

“In many universities and systems, the existing [free speech] policies are a sort of patchwork of policy decisions,” said Jeremy Young, the senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, a nonprofit that seeks to protect free expression in the U.S. and worldwide.

“The value of adopting the Chicago Statement is in making a clear, declarative statement that sets a set of principles” for how free speech will work at the UT System, Young added. “This pulls free expression out to the front and makes it a preeminent goal and focus of the institution, as it should be.”

Ninety-one other academic institutions across the country, including University of Texas at San Antonio, have adopted the Chicago Statement, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonprofit that aims to protect free speech rights on college campuses.

In 2019, Texas passed a law requiring universities to allow anyone to speak freely while on campus and to create disciplinary sanctions for students who interfere with others’ free speech.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas at San Antonio and University of Texas System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.