Campuses across Texas had pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Why did only UT-Austin crack down?

Dozens of people were arrested in Austin, while sit ins and demonstrations elsewhere happened mostly unobstructed. School officials say it’s because campus rules were broken.

click to enlarge Pro-Palestinian protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza march through the outdoor corridors of UTSA on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. - Courtesy Photo / Scott Ball of San Antonio Report
Courtesy Photo / Scott Ball of San Antonio Report
Pro-Palestinian protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza march through the outdoor corridors of UTSA on Wednesday, April 24, 2024.
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When the wave of protests related to the Israel-Hamas war washed over Texas colleges this week, most schools didn’t see much of a stir. Students staged a sit-in near the president’s office at the University of Texas at Dallas. They marched through campus waving flags at the University of Texas at San Antonio. They crowded a plaza at Texas A&M.

But only one protest drew mass arrests — the demonstration at the University of Texas at Austin. No one accused the people gathered of turning violent. But 57 were hauled away by police and state troopers, who showed up to the rally in riot gear and on horseback.

UT-Austin officials have defended their response, arguing they tried to break up the group because there were signs ahead of the rally it might get violent or engage in antisemitic behavior. When the protestors didn’t disperse, they were arrested on trespassing charges. (All those charges have since been dropped.) That has led critics on campus and beyond to argue that more restraint was possible and to question whether the university and state police overstepped.

State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin — herself, a UT School of Law alum — raised those questions to Harzell and UT System Chancellor J.B. Milliken by text message on the day of the crackdown.

“It appears the state is treating UT Austin differently than other campuses,” she wrote at 6:07 p.m., according to text messages given to The Texas Tribune and first reported by the Austin American-Statesman. “I’ve not seen reports of DPS in tactical gear sent to other campuses. Did UT Austin ask for this heightened presence?”

The answer from Hartzell came 79 minutes later.

“We asked for help, Senator,” Hartzell replied. “They indicated their desire to mimic what happened at Columbia and elsewhere, which we are doing our best to avoid for obvious reasons.”

Hartzell said he couldn’t speak to the other campuses’ responses but that “this group is a chapter of a national organization that has done this elsewhere.”

“They clearly intended to break our protest rules, despite our statements to them that we couldn’t allow them to do so,” he wrote. “I wish we weren’t in this situation.”

On the day of the arrests, the Department of Public Safety said they were sent to campus on the orders of Gov. Greg Abbott, who has stridently denounced pro-Palestinian protests and ordered campuses to crack down on antisemitism. Eckhardt told the Tribune on Friday she believes Abbott targeted UT-Austin students because it was politically beneficial.

“The DPS deployment was a frightening, unnecessary, and expensive overreaction,” she said.

D’Angelo Colter, a UT-Austin student present during the protests and ensuing police response, agreed.

“I think the reason the response in Austin was more intense than other satellite campuses is that it is very close to the Capitol,” he said. “The state tries to control and check UT for everything that happens, and when students have opposing views, it causes the state to retaliate in an impulsive way.”

Campus rules

The rules for a campus demonstration at UT-Austin are simple. Demonstrators are not allowed to block entrances or exits to buildings, create a disruption in buildings, vandalize property, use amplified sound without reservation or attempt to force others to view or listen to a message.

People who aren’t students are allowed to participate in a protest on campus, and the university cannot cancel an event based on the speaker's viewpoint.

“Peaceful protests within our rules are acceptable,” Hartzell said in a letter to the campus community on Wednesday.

But this protest was clearly problematic from the start, school officials have suggested. In another letter to campus on Thursday, Hartzell said administrators believed that protesters were attempting to take over, and disrupt, the campus for an extended period — a strategy that Hartzell said was modeled after a "national organization's protest playbook."

The university has noted that there had been 13 pro-Palestinian “free speech events” on campus without incident since October. But Hartzell said breaking school rules and “disrupting others’ ability to learn are not allowed.”

“The protestors tried to deliver on their stated intent to occupy campus,” Hartzell wrote. “People not affiliated with UT joined them, and many ignored University officials’ continual pleas for restraint and to immediately disperse.”

It’s unclear what specific communication caused UT officials to expect violence. An Instagram post from organizers the day before the event called on students to walk out of class at 11:40 a.m. and march to “occupy the lawn.” Another featured a schedule that included a guest speaker, two teach-ins and two hour-long study breaks. “Bring blankets, food, face masks, and energy,” it said.

Most universities across the state have similar rules for protests, but their enforcement is seemingly up to the campus administration.

"I didn't see anybody going busting up the UTSA crowd or the UT Arlington crowd," George Lobb, member of the Austin Lawyers Guild, told The Texas Tribune on Thursday.

Leadership at several state universities, including those in the UT System, emphasized communication between the administration and protest organizers led to peaceful conclusions.

UT-Arlington President Jennifer Cowley sent out a message to students before the protests reminding everyone that one of their institutional responsibilities is to provide opportunities for civil discourse. She also said the university must keep the campus safe and had been communicating with protest organizers to make sure they understood when their right to protest crosses into civil disobedience and disruption.

“I remain confident in this University’s ability to engage in civil and respectful discourse about contentious issues while also maintaining a safe campus environment for all,” Cowley wrote.

Other campuses in the UT System pointed out they were just following the policy handbook rules, which allows for demonstrations as long as they don’t disrupt students' learning.

At UTSA, there were no arrests, but organizers expressed frustration that administrators told them before the protest that chants in Arabic, slogans that mention Israel and the use of some loudspeakers were not allowed.

When asked about this on Thursday, university spokesman Joe Izbrand pointed to a policy handbook, which states that no speech, expression, or assembly can disrupt or interfere with teaching or the flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. He said this rule also applies to amplified sound and the prohibition on signs on poles or sticks.

Over 100 students showed up at the Texas A&M protest, which included masks and flags. No arrests were made, and the event ended peacefully.

Syded Ahmer, organization chair for the school’s Young Democratic Socialists of America, said A&M had been holding several events this month advocating for an end to the fighting in Gaza, each one receiving university approval, and not once did the administration contact them to cease any of their activities.

“Texas A&M did what they were supposed to do: allow their students the right to speak out,” Ahmer said.

And at UT-Dallas, about 100 students, some of them with drums, megaphones and signs, lined the hallway outside President Richard Benson’s office. Benson eventually agreed to meet with the protestors personally and hear their concerns.

First Amendment rules

School officials and the state’s Republican leaders have been vocal about the need for free speech on campus in recent years, particularly due to a concern that conservative voices are drowned out at universities.

In 2019, Texas lawmakers passed a free speech law that established all common outdoor areas at public universities as traditional public forums, allowing anyone — not just students and university members — to exercise free speech there, as long as their activities are lawful and don’t disrupt the normal functions of the campus.

Six months ago, UT-Austin celebrated “Free Speech Week,” and reminded students in a video that outside protestors are allowed on campus.

Thomas Leatherbury, director of the First Amendment Clinic at the SMU Law School in Dallas, said that because of this law, there are very limited circumstances in which someone’s right to freedom of speech can be violated. He said that unless there are harassment cases, actual threats of violence, or potential incitement of riots, protesters are protected despite what is being said.

“I have a lot of questions, and I don’t have many answers,” he said. “But the district attorney dismissing most of those charges that were filed yesterday for lack of probable cause says to me there was an overreaction.”

Travis Fife at the Texas Civil Rights Project called the events at UT-Austin a terrifying example of how criminal law and law enforcement are being used to stifle students’ First Amendment rights. He also mentioned that Abbott’s comments this week calling for the protestors to be expelled could be used against him in court.

“In First Amendment law, there is something called viewpoint discrimination, which is where the government goes after someone because of their viewpoint,” he said. “That is the cardinal sin of the First Amendment so I am sure there is some lawyer out there smiling that Abbott tweeted that out because that is clear viewpoint discrimination.”

Fife said that the theory that demonstrators need to communicate and get approval from the university administration before holding a protest is the exact opposite of what the First Amendment is meant to protect.

“The whole point is that if you’re nonviolent, and you’re gathering in a crowd to express yourself in an area that is open to the public, you’re allowed to do that, and you don’t have to ask for permission,” Fife said.

Disclosure: University of Texas - Dallas, University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M Univeristy, SMU and University of Texas at San Antonio 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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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