UT Austin Protest Response

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Jose Chito Vela
Posts: 87
Joined: Fri Feb 11, 2022 8:16 am

UT Austin Protest Response

Post by Jose Chito Vela »


We have now had several weeks to absorb and consider the police response to the recent protests at the University of Texas at Austin and will be briefed on the issue today. Before the briefing, I’d like to convey my understanding of the laws and principles surrounding speech protected by the First Amendment both in Austin and at the University of Texas.

Texas Education Code Sec. 51.9315 establishes common outdoor areas of Texas universities as traditional public forums, where both students and the general public can “engage in expressive activities” with no exception for the content of the speech, offensive or not. This law was passed in 2019, at the express urging of Governor Abbott and Texas’s Republican lawmakers. The statute essentially codifies existing law surrounding First Amendment protections at traditional public forums and clarifies that any member of the public can enter a public Texas university and engage in free speech in common outdoor areas.

Confusingly, Governor Abbott’s March 2024 executive order GA-44 contradicts the 2019 legislation by establishing a requirement for Texas universities to consider the content of a given protest and punish people and groups whose speech contains content to which he objects.

During the recent protests, Governor Abbott explicitly stated that he was initiating an escalated law enforcement response to the protest because of its specific content. He did not list any violations of the law, threats to the public, or disruptions of campus activity. He stated that students should be jailed exclusively and specifically because of the content of their protected political speech in a designated free speech area on public land.

I fear our police department was used to crack down on legal speech which should not have been limited. While camping at a university’s traditional public forum may be prohibited, the first encounters and arrests between law enforcement and protesters at UT on April 24 occurred before there was any such activity. Arrests occurred during the day, before anyone had camped, set up a tent or done anything to merit arrest. The fact that protesters MAY camp is not a legal reason to disrupt a protest and arrest people. Our police department should not participate in the suppression of political speech. In fact, our participation could have legal liability.

In addition to these state-level legal protections, our City’s camping ban (municipal code 9-4-11-G(2)) contains a clear exception for someone who is “participating in… [a] demonstration or similar event” from criminal enforcement of the ban.

In response to the public outcry since April 24, one important question has arisen: What if it were us? What if protestors camped in a public space outside City Hall, a place where we regularly see political speech of all contents and in all forms? Should the Austin Police Department remove and arrest the protesters?

My answer is simple: No. I believe they have the legal right to protest.

Protesters could not block those seeking to enter city hall or travel through the area. The safety of all city hall employees and visitors must be preserved. But posters, banners, speeches, chants, marches, and yes, even encampments, are part of the robust set of protections the First Amendment provides.

We regularly cheer protest encampments when they appear at traditional public forums all over the world. I vividly remember the camps set up by protesting students in Tiananmen Square and the tragic and deadly assault on the area by the Chinese government. Major public protests including encampments have occurred in Tahrir Square (Cairo, Egypt), Gezi Park (Istanbul, Turkey) and many other places around the world in recent decades. Encampments as protests have a long tradition in the United States as well.

I look forward to today’s discussion of this issue at our work session.


Jose Velasquez
Posts: 32
Joined: Tue Jan 17, 2023 2:35 pm

Re: UT Austin Protest Response

Post by Jose Velasquez »

Thank you CM Vela for your detailed insight. I am also looking forward to today's discussion and hope to receive answers to the many questions I still have on the police response. It is deeply important to me that we ensure that the right to protest is protected and seek those answers given the points stated above.

-Council Member José Velásquez
Council Member, District 3
Sara Barge
Posts: 6
Joined: Mon Mar 21, 2022 2:31 pm

Re: UT Austin Protest Response

Post by Sara Barge »

On behalf of CM Qadri:

CM Vela,

Thank you very much for this detailed analysis regarding the response to the anti-war protests at UT Austin. I very much agree with your analysis, and I appreciate your leadership on making sure we have the time we need in Executive Session to get to the bottom of all of our questions related to APD's response. At the end of the day, while we have no control over what DPS, UTPD, or their respective leaders choose to do, as a City we absolutely are responsible for what APD does.

I look forward to what I hope will be a revealing and informative briefing and conversation in our upcoming Executive Session.

Chief of Staff, District 9