Watch a conversation on the UT-Austin protests and the state of free speech on college campuses

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While the intervention by law enforcement at campus demonstrations across the country — including protests at the University of Texas at Austin — has drawn intense scrutiny, it has also raised questions about free speech on college campuses.

This week, The Texas Tribune spoke with Edgar Saldivar, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and Lorraine Pangle, a professor of government and co-director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas at the UT- Austin, to help provide context around the laws governing free speech, how free speech has been protected and challenged in campus protests, and what we should all learn from the last few weeks.

Interviewed by Matthew Watkins, the Tribune’s managing editor of news and politics, Saldivar dived into the key tenets of the ACLU’s open letter to college and university presidents on handling protests.

"University officials need to be mindful that their No. 1 priority is students, and they need to be mindful of the constitutional rights of students and faculty,” Saldivar said in the interview, recorded Tuesday. He said that means prioritizing the protection of free speech on campus and guarding against pressure from outside influences like politicians or donors.

Saldivar also discussed the ACLU’s recommendations that colleges must ensure that they’re not singling out particular viewpoints for punishment and they are protecting all students from discriminatory harassment. There are content-neutral protest policies that schools can enforce as long as they are allowing students to express themselves.

"If you are going to enforce policies to protect property and to protect other school policies, do not forget to make room for First Amendment protections as well," Saldivar said.

He advised that students who are planning to protest should know their rights and have the name of a friend or lawyer they can reach out to. And they should always be thinking about safety.

“If you are in a situation directly with law enforcement, do not resist, do not fight back. You want to protect yourself first and foremost,” Saldivar said.

Pangle, who spoke Wednesday with Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera, the Tribune’s education and urban affairs editor, said that student protesters and university leaders all face a learning curve.

“I don’t think students understand well enough the difference between intellectual inquiry and shouting slogans and demanding actions of somebody else,” Pangle said. “They’re allowed to demand those actions, but that’s not why the university is here.”

She added she’s not sure the UT-Austin faculty or the administration is doing all it can to “to model the kind of inquiry that avoids moral posturing and vilification and helping students to understand the difference between taking a stand that people imagine is a virtuous thing to do and actually practicing the virtues that we need to preserve our freedom as a country.”

Pangle also complimented University of Texas System regents for adopting the Chicago Principles of Freedom of Expression and recommended taking further action to adopt institutional neutrality on contested public issues.

“The problem with the university taking a stand on a contested social and political issue is that then we have an authorized view and we have a minority view that has been officially discriminated against and criticized, and that squashes the free inquiry that the university exists in order to promote.”

You can watch the full interviews above.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas System 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.

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