More students need to know their free speech rights

A figure standing in front of a Palestinian flag. Their mouth is covered with an "x" of red tape, and a broken speech bubble is next to them.

Jose Gonzalez-Campelo/The Cougar

When it comes to free speech on campus, there are too many people, both within the student body and the general public, who don’t know the extent of their rights, or recent threats to those rights.

Last week, Students for Justice in Palestine HTX organized an encampment in front of M.D. Anderson Library, advocating for divestment. Within hours of the encampment being put up, UHPD tore it down, arresting two students in the process.

Student movements in regard to the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict at UH have been very consistent over the past months, though the recent encampment was a unique occurrence.

So, why exactly are encampments not allowed on campus, and what’s the deal with free speech policies when it comes to protesting?

The University’s statement regarding the dismantling of the encampment referenced Texas Penal Code Section 48.05, which prohibits any form of camping in a public area without prior consent from authorities that manage the space.

This law was enacted in 2021 and lays out procedures for directing campers to other spaces and seizing belongings related to the encampment. The bill largely focuses on camping in relation to homelessness but can be applied to any temporary settlements on public property.

After last week’s encampment’s destruction, students were allowed to continue protesting, as it’s within their rights to do so.

This is due to Senate Bill 18, enacted in 2019, which opened up all “open common areas” at Texas public universities to any member of the public wishing to exercise their free speech.

It’s worth noting that SB18 was created following concerns from Texas Republicans that conservative voices were being silenced on university campuses.

Since the bill went into effect, anyone, regardless of their relation to a university, is within their rights to use campus grounds for constitutionally protected expressive activities, so long as they’re acting within that specific institution’s personal free speech policies. UH’s own policies on free speech cite several locations, allowed decibel levels for amplified sound, rules for stationary structures and displays and allotted time frames for such activities.

One important thing to note in regard to this is Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s recent executive order.  In his description, he directed college campuses to revise their free speech policies and discipline due to “the sharp rise in antisemitic speech and acts on university campuses.” This directive specifically targeted organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine and the Palestine Solidarity Committee, insisting that they be punished for violating the policies listed.

This order spells disaster for pro-Palestinian movements and other student movements across Texas that have noted that it’s not within Abbott’s authority to restrict the sort of speech he’s referring to. In conflating these movements with anti-semitism, Abbott is effectively attempting to use his authority to silence a movement he disagrees with.

Based on UH’s track record with recent protests, it’s not unfair to assume the administration has no intent to push back on this order.

Coming back to SB18, the aforementioned bill was signed after worries about students being silenced. However, the recent executive order is a clear push toward silencing Palestinian organizations and students. Under no circumstances should this be allowed.

Pro-Palestinian movements are in no way antisemitic, and it’s not only disingenuous to imply such, but dangerous, especially coming from a government official. Abbott’s order blatantly disregards First Amendment rights and blurs the lines between what is hate speech, and what is not, entirely to support his own agenda.

Regardless, when it comes to student movements, it’s important to know your rights, and just as important to know the origins and specifics of the laws they come from. Even more so, it’s imperative to be aware of threats made to your free speech and fight against them.

Parker Hodges-Beggs is a sophomore journalism major who can be reached at [email protected]

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