EducationUNT “Looking Into” Removal of Conservative Group, Measure May Violate New State Law

After an online tiff between a conservative group and progressives at the University of North Texas, President Neal Smatresk said he would be "looking into" the requests to ban the conservative group.
July 10, 2020
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College campuses, home to fervent and forming ideologies and developing youth, are strongholds of intra-student body conflict where they once were bastions of free, and often controversial, speech. In recent years, efforts to suppress speech a given group or individual finds detestable on public campuses have increasingly bubbled up.

The most recent example is unfolding on the campus of the University of North Texas (UNT). An online petition to remove the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) UNT chapter from campus currently has over 2,400 signatures. The chapter was chartered in September of last year and members say pushback has been prevalent ever since. 

The recent push stems from a broader Twitter spat between the YCT chapter’s official account and various progressive student organizations — another episode in a long list of conflicts between progressive and conservative students on campus.

While the formal push has been to remove the club from its official, campus-sanctioned capacity, individual students have issued thinly veiled threats to YCT students on campus writ large.

The petition alleges the YCT chapter “has shown a pattern of racism, transphobia, and homophobia throughout the 2019 through 2020 school year.”

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YCT at UNT has reprimanded a member of theirs whom they deemed sent an inappropriate tweet in reply to a campus LGBT organization after that organization countered a tweet from the conservative student group.

Regardless, the situation has bubbled over and UNT President Neal Smatresk replied to a student’s social media appeal to remove the chapter with an ambiguous “We are looking into this.”

It is unclear whether an official investigation has been initiated, and neither President Smatresk nor his office returned a request for comment by this publishing.

However, providing clarity into this issue is Senate Bill 18 (SB 18) passed by the 86th Legislature in 2019. Deemed a “campus free speech bill,” SB 18 was passed to codify the “protection of expressive activities at public institutions of higher education.”

One passage in particular pertains to the UNT situation.

Subsection (g) reads:

“An institution of higher education may not take action against a student organization or deny the organization any benefit generally available to other student organizations at the institution on the basis of a political, religious, philosophical, ideological, or academic viewpoint expressed by the organization or of any expressive activities of the organization.”

The law also specifies what constitutes “expressive activities,” defining the term as “any speech or expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or by Section 8, Article I, Texas Constitution, and includes assemblies, protests, speeches, the distribution of written material, the carrying of signs, and the circulation of petitions.”

The benefits which cannot be denied include official status recognition with the school, facility use, communication channels, and funding.

The Texan spoke with Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), about this statute as it relates to the UNT situation.

Cohn said, “This section is directly on point for this controversy and the university cannot give in to demands to ban the UNT [YCT chapter].” 

The statute went into operative effect on September 1, 2019.

FIRE is a legal organization whose mission is to “defend and sustain the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities.” The organization has had success with many of the cases it has taken on, including playing a hand in a case at the University of Cincinnati in a federal district court, which ruled “free speech zones” to be unconstitutional.

Cohn further emphasized it would be illegal for the university to ban the YCT chapter or revoke funding.

“It is protected speech to ask for someone to be banned,” Cohn added about the petition, “but the school can’t give in to that demand.”

As for an investigation, Cohn said it is not necessarily a violation, but once it is clear what’s being investigated is protected speech and the investigation continues, then “it can cause a chilling effect” on campus speech.

In legal terms, a “chilling effect” is defined as when “speech or conduct is suppressed by fear of penalization at the interests of an individual or group.”

“The existence of the organization itself and its generally conservative activities are obviously protected,” Cohn continued.

However, investigations can be initiated and action can be taken against individuals, Cohn stipulated, if their actions cross into unprotected conduct — such as issuing a real, non-hyperbolic threat.

As a public university that relies on state funding, UNT cannot act on the requests to ban the YCT chapter without jeopardizing that funding and facing a barrage of lawsuits.

The controversy has reached outside the confines of campus as state legislators, such as Reps. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) and Briscoe Cain (R-Houston), and Tarrant County GOP Chair Rick Barnes have weighed in. 

Cain even expressed his excitement at the possibility of suing UNT for violating the group’s rights.

“You cannot have a prior restraint that prevents an entire group from its recognition, and from being part of the university community just because of their politics — and that would be true in the other direction as well,” Cohn concluded.

Kelly Neidert, the chairwoman of YCT at UNT, confirmed to The Texan that initial legal steps have been explored should the university ban their club.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.