Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Public Forums at The University of Texas at Austin
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- Background on Changes to Texas Law on Public Forums on College Campuses
The 86th Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 18 (SB 18), which guarantees that members of the public are free to engage in expressive speech on public university campuses by converting some parts of campuses to traditional public forums instead of limited public forums. It also contains various requirements and prohibitions related to expressive activities on campuses. The main effect of the new law is to allow any person to engage in free speech activities in the common outdoor areas of the state’s public university campuses. It allows universities to continue to regulate the time, place and manner of free speech activities—so long as these rules are content-neutral and applied regardless of a speaker’s viewpoint.
The new law requires universities to create disciplinary sanctions for students, student organizations and faculty members who interfere with the free speech activities of others. UT policy also provides for the discipline of staff if they violate the new law’s provisions.
The law, effective Sept. 1, 2019, gives universities until Aug. 1, 2020, to finalize specific rules for implementation. The interim policies and procedures that UT Austin has introduced at this time will be finalized and recommended for approval by the UT System Board of Regents in 2020.
- How does this law affect UT?
The law converts the university’s common outdoor area to traditional public forums and allows anyone — not just students, faculty members or invited guests — to exercise free speech there, as long as their activities are lawful and don’t disrupt the functions of the campus. Not all outdoor spaces on campus are part of the common outdoor area. The university has defined common outdoor area in its rules.
- What is the common outdoor area?
The common outdoor area means much of the open outdoor space on campus. It does not include the outdoor campus space that is used for educational or research functions, or for university events, on either a permanent or temporary basis.
- If an area is in the common outdoor area, is it always available for use by anyone for expressive activities?
A person or group does not need a reservation for the exercise of expressive activities in the common outdoor area and spontaneous expressive activity may occur in areas that are not in use. However, once a person or group does reserve a certain space in the common outdoor area for expressive activities, it is not available for another person or group’s use or reservation at that time. In addition, when outdoor space is being used, even on a temporary basis, for university business or events, an educational or research function, it is not part of the common outdoor area available for use for others’ expressive activities. Link to rule defining common outdoor area 13-104 (2). This may include some athletic competitions and cultural activities.
- How does this affect football Saturdays?
On Texas football game days, portions of the university around Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium are reserved specifically for this university event and are not part of the common outdoor areas available for expressive activities. However, other parts of the campus outdoor area may be available for expressive activities during those events. At other times, when no university event is taking place in that space, those same areas are available for use as part of the common outdoor area.
- Are there outdoor spaces that are never part of the common outdoor area?
Yes. For example, the Blanton Museum of Art maintains an outdoor plaza and art garden that is a seamless part of the museum visitor experience. This area includes installations and visual separation via landscaping from the common outdoor area. Also, some of the university’s buildings and residence halls have patio areas that are reserved for residents’ use. The courtyard areas of Goldsmith Hall and Cronkite Plaza and the patio areas outside the Texas Union and Powers Student Activity Center are considered extensions of those buildings and are not part of the common outdoor area.
- Are the new UT Austin rules stronger protections for freedom of speech than the old UT Austin rules?
UT Austin has always protected free speech, with members of the campus community and invited guests sharing a wide range of opinions and the robust exchange of ideas taking place in classrooms. The strength of these protections remains the same and stem from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They now extend to members of the general public who are permitted to come to the common outdoor spaces of the campus without being invited by a campus organization or affiliate.
- What if someone is offended by another person’s speech?
Freedom of speech means that all views have a place for expression—even those that others may find offensive, hurtful or wrong. UT community members who hear words they don’t like are free to offer their own words in response, but they must always respect the rights of all speakers to share their views.
- What if someone feels physically threatened?
If anyone believes they face violence or imminent bodily harm in any situation, the first action should always be to call 911 and engage UTPD.
- Can anyone come on campus to share their beliefs?
Yes, as long as their activities are lawful and don’t disrupt the functions of the campus. All university rules regarding the time, place and manner of expressive activities—such as limits on amplified sound and prohibitions on sticks and open flames—apply both to members of the UT community and members of the general public.
- Are there rules to prevent people from disrupting classes, exams and the other daily business of the campus?
Yes. In keeping with the U.S. Constitution, the law allows the university to regulate the time, place and manner of free speech activities—so long as these rules are content-neutral and applied regardless of the speaker’s viewpoint. All previous university “time, place and manner” rules remain in place and will be extended to members of the general public who come to campus.
- What are some of the “time, place and manner” rules in place on campus?
A full list of rules can be found in Chapters 10 and 13 of the University’s Institutional Rules. Some of the specific measures:
- Reservations are required to use amplified sound at any time
- During weekday business hours, amplified sound can only be used at designated times and in designated areas with a reservation. (link to map)
- Permitted expressive activity does not allow the use of sticks or batons, including metal, plastic or wood poles affixed to signs.
- Open flames are prohibited on campus.
- Community members and visitors cannot obscure their faces with masks.
- Community members and visitors must allow a 10-foot clearance around points of entry and the perimeter of all university buildings.
- The general public is not permitted to hang signs or banners on campus buildings, landscaping, hardscape, or trees. Campus community members may apply through the dean of students for use of a temporary banner space in the university’s limited public forum.
- Commercial solicitation is prohibited.
- Can members of the public reserve a space for their expressive activities on campus?
Yes. Members of the public may reserve a space in the common outdoor area or an amplified sound area by making a request to email@example.com.
- Is amplified sound restricted on campus under the new rules?
Yes. During weekdays, amplified sound is only permitted in designated areas by people or groups that have submitted requests and received permission. These spaces are part of the common outdoor area that members of the public may use. Six of these eight areas have an occupancy capacity of 100 persons or more. This map contains the locations, weekday time restrictions and occupancy limits for each area.
After 5 p.m. or on weekends, amplified sound is permitted in all common outdoor areas by people or groups that have submitted requests and received permission.
The Dean of Students administers the reservations for these areas. UT community members will continue to use the same process available in the past to reserve these spaces through a form provided by the Dean of Students. Members of the public may reserve space by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Can members of the general public come into academic buildings for expressive activities?
No. The new law applies only to common outdoor areas. The university buildings are for campus community members and invited guests’ use.
The outside walls and surfaces of university buildings or structures; walls or surfaces connected to a university building; and spaces dedicated to temporary outdoor banners or exhibits are not part of the common outdoor area so are not available to the public for their use.
- If I think there is a violation of SB 18, how can I report it?
Students wishing to make a grievance regarding a violation of the new law may report it via the university compliance and ethics hotline by emailing email@example.com. If anyone feels physically threatened in any situation, the first action should always be to call 911 and engage UTPD.
- What disciplinary processes are in place for those who interfere with another person’s right of free expression?
UT Austin does not tolerate behavior that unlawfully interferes with another person’s exercise of free speech. Students, student organizations and faculty members who interfere with another person’s free speech activities are subject to discipline as set out in 13-1202. Members of the public who impede another’s free speech may be subject to criminal trespass charges, arrest, or other lawful measures.
- Can anyone use the campus for commercial activities, such as filming advertisements or distributing products?
No. Commercial activities are expressly prohibited.
- Who can post banners and exhibits on campus?
Student, faculty members and staff organizations and academic and administrative units are permitted to hang banners and display exhibits on campus through a reservation process. This expressive activity is considered part of the university’s educational mission and reserved solely for university community members. The spaces set aside for “temporary banner space” and “temporary exhibit space” are part of the university’s limited public forum that is not available to the general public.