UT-Austin lecturer arrested and fired after confrontation with police at pro-Palestinian demonstration

University of Texas police officers arrest a protestor within the pro-Palestinian encampment on the University of Texas at Austin campus on April 29, 2024 (Leila Saidane For The Texas Tribune, Leila Saidane For The Texas Tribune)

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A University of Texas at Austin lecturer was arrested and fired this week in connection with his participation in a pro-Palestinian demonstration on campus, raising fresh concerns among faculty members and free speech advocates about academic protections in the state.

Richard Heyman, who has taught at UT for 18 years in the College of Liberal Arts, was arrested Wednesday by the Texas Department of Public Safety and charged with interfering with public duties, a Class B misdemeanor. The charge stems from Heyman’s participation in an April 29 pro-Palestinian demonstration in which authorities arrested around 80 protesters who had set up an encampment on campus.

The university fired Heyman on Thursday through an email, according to his lawyer, Gerry Morris. Heyman was scheduled to teach three classes during the upcoming fall semester.

According to Heyman’s arrest affidavit, DPS troopers accused him of yelling expletives at law enforcement during the protest, pulling away a trooper’s bike and making a motion with a water bottle “as if he were going to swing it and hit” a trooper.

Citing three video recordings of Heyman’s actions, Morris disagreed with the affidavit’s characterization of his client as physically disruptive.

Morris said the officer initiated physical contact and pushed Heyman, which caused Heyman to grab onto the bike’s handlebar for balance. Morris said he plans to ask the Travis County Attorney’s office to dismiss the case.

“This is a politically charged atmosphere that this occurred in,” Morris said. “I think in a normal atmosphere, the prosecutor would look at this, drop it pretty quickly. But I’m not sure that it’s going to move very quickly given what we’re in the middle of.”

Heyman’s firing comes amid rising concern among Texas faculty groups that state legislators have passed laws that have led to increased scrutiny and insecurity regarding their jobs. Anne Lewis, an executive board member of the Texas State Employees Union, linked Heyman’s firing to what she said are broader moves by the state to restrict academic freedom and First Amendment rights.

“I think it is an attack on higher education and its core values, and Richard is just one of many that is getting caught up in this attack,” Lewis said. “He’s the worst so far.”

Last year Texas lawmakers passed Senate Bill 17, which banned diversity, equity and inclusion offices at Texas universities, and Senate Bill 18, which set out to terminate tenure at state universities but ended up only requiring schools to provide clear guidelines for how to obtain and keep tenure. Complying with SB 17 resulted in firings at universities across the state, with UT-Austin laying off dozens of employees earlier this year.

The state Legislature’s Higher Education Committee will likely monitor the implementation of both laws and consider regulating faculty senates in the next legislative session, according to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s agenda for lawmakers during the interim period before the next legislative session. Faculty senates represent faculty members in open meetings to make recommendations on a wide variety of topics such as undergraduate degree programs and student services.

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