Free Speech at UT

The Truth Shall Set You Free

By Scott Henson and Tom Philpott
February 1990; pages 4-5, 15; Volume 1, No. 4

More than 150 years ago, the Danish philsopher Soren Kierkegaard declared, "People hardly ever make use of the freedom which they have, for example, freedom of thought; instead, they demand freedom of speech as compensation."

UT students sporadically do even that. For 25 years UT students have been bullied and cajoled by administration policies designed to subvert their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

UT policy severely limits the distribution of non-UT sanctioned student press; it herds students who want to gather in mass demonstrations into a cramped corner of campus known as the "free speech area," and only allows this privilege between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m.; and it subtly controls the direction of UT's two officially sanctioned student press organs - The Daily Texan and Utmost magazine - by giving the journalism department de facto veto power in choosing top editors.

"It's absurd, then, that the University uses 'controlling solicitation' as its reason for banning alternative press."

What's worse, these policies combined are more damaging than the sum of their parts: They intertwine and reinforce each other like strands in a rope. Their net result is to choke off dissent and leave the possibility for student empowerment hanging like a corpse in the wind.

That rope must be cut. To do so, students must first understand the full profanity of their situation. What follows is an attempt to show the causes and effects of UT's conscious repression of free expression on campus.

Speech repression: Some background

When UT students decide to launch a campus publication, they typically met Consuelo Trevino, an official in the Campus Activities Office. She explains to them the rules they must follow: They must not distribute their magazine on campus by hand, nor can they simply stack them in locations of their choice.

Instead, they must buy or make "self-supporting" racks, the design and construction of which she must approve. Never should they be caught passing them out anywhere, even in the "free speech area"; that would be against the rules, and breaking the rules could get you disbanded as a student group or even expelled from school for repeat offenders. You may sue, she tells you, but that's futile, because The Texas Review, a right-wing campus paper, tried that in 1985 and lost.

But that reasoning is false. To understand why, you have to compare the Review case to an earlier lawsuit against UT over speech rights.

The Rag case

In 1969, the UT-System Board of Regents took a tiny publication to court in an attempt to ban it from campus.

The Regents were trying to enforce a Texas statute that outlawed solicitation on state campuses. Their target wasn't a glossy tabloid pimping beer and expensive spring-break trips. It was The Rag, a three-year-old student magazine that was anti-Vietnam War in LBJ's backyard, and pro-civil rights in an Old Confederate state that clung fast to the spirit of not the letter of Jim Crow laws.

"Oat Willie's can always purchase a Texan ad. CISPES can't."

The University won a temporary injunction, but The Rag countersued and eventually won in a U.S. district court in 1970.

The court ruled that state institutions had to prove a "compelling reason" for limiting First Amendment rights, and that the University's supposed concern about "solicitation" in the case of The Rag wasn't sufficiently compelling.

It pointed to several contradictions in UT's enforcement of the policy: It listed several publications that were distributed on campus but contained advertising - including The Daily Texan - and several student groups and UT departments that sold items on campus to raise funds.

The decision allowed The Rag to continue distributing on campus, but it didn't strike down the state law against campus solicitation, or the official UT-System rule drawn from it. What that means is that the University can enforce the rule as it sees fit - unless individual publications sue.

But until they sue, the University has free reign. It was in the University's interest, then, to make people believe that a suit couldn't win - and that's exactly what the hapless Texas Review accomplished with its lawsuit.

The Review case

Not surprisingly, the administration never cites The Rag case when explaining the rules to prospective campus publications. Instead, the Campus Activities Office will offer up a copy of a 1985 lawsuit concerning The Texas Review, a periodically published right-wing journal. The Review lawsuit was most notable for its lameness. It never pretended to address the fundamental issue of campus free speech - whether papers may sell advertising and still distribute their products.

Instead, The Review sued the University for the right to distribute its publication from a table on the West Mall. Because the magazine wasn't challenging the no-solicitation explicitly, the courts applied the rule to the paper's distribution rights. The Review people charged that because The Daily Texan was allowed to distribute widely on campus, they should be allowed to distribute their magazine from a West Mall table. But the University preempted their argument by purchasing and installing one rack for use by alternative press. It's still there, in the bushes behind The Daily Texan rack by the West Mall Office Building.

Predictably, then, The Review lost its case against the University, because the court ruled that it had the same distribution rights as The Texan on the West Mall, and The Review had asked for nothing more in its suit. Why the paper's lawyers failed to rely on previous case law remains a mystery.

But the fact remains that in the only fundamental challenge to the University's solicitation restrictions, UT lost handily. Another, more ominous fact remains, too: The University still enforces its unconstitutional ban on alternative-press magazines on campus.

The Ad Monopoly

What all of this creates is a UT-enforced Texan monopoly. In the Review case, the court justified The Texan's wide distribution because it's partially paid for by student-service fees and because it's an information source on university issues. Not only do student-service fees subsidize The Texan with some 10 percent of its budget each year, UT provides it tax-free, at-cost publishing.

Further, UT enforces policies that make The Texan by far the dominant advertising forum in the UT market. Even as UT prohibits non-subsidized campus-distributed student press from accepting advertising, the Texas Student Publications board requires the subsidized Texan to fill 58 percent of its space wtih ads.

It's absurd, then, that the University uses "controlling solicitation" as its reasoning for banning alternative press. The suggestion that advertisements in these papers significantly increase the amount of on-campus solicitation cannot be justified by reality. Search through this magazine, for instance, count the advertisements we were able to sell, and compare with the number of ads in The Texan.

Alternative press, especially those that attack issues critically, can't compare with The Texan for ads at any level, despite their lower ad rates. Many advertisers fear too much controversy. Also, state-subsidized papers can hire consulting firms to estimate their readership at higher than their circulation. Utmost, for instance, claims 30,000 readers, despite the fact that it only prints 8,000-10,000 copies. Students must pay $2.50 for Utmost, which only comes out twice each semester.

Polemicist, on the other hand, prints 5,000 copies once each month, and is distributed free in places like coffeehouses where people read them and leave them for future readers. Polemicist, however, cannot afford a high-dollar consultant to lie about our circulation. So potential advertisers who buy into the Utmost farce are hoodwinked into thinking it's a better deal than it is. Meanwhile, alternative press struggle to fund their magazines, many of which consistently scoop the bureaucratized mainstream UT press.

Banning advertisements in alternative press must be seen as a repressive tool for the administration to control discourse, not as a way to ban commercialism. Aside from the fact that alternative press sell few ads, the fact remains that any advertiser in these magazines could just as easily buy an ad in The Texan, Utmost, or Polis. Banning a handful of ad forums doesn't eliminate commercialism, it only ensures that advertising is channeled into official publications. The UT Students' Assocation, for instance, purchases ads in The Texan for a variety of functions, but seldom will these ads be found in alternative press.

In fact, the "solicitation" that's banned by these rules isn't that of commercial businesses, but of student groups that can't afford Texan ads. The Texan only gives student groups 20 percent off its ad rates. Polemicist, on the other hand, routinely prints free ads for political groups like the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), which could never afford to consistently advertise in the mainstream press. These are the ads that are banned by the regents' rules, not commercial solicitation.

Oat Willie's can always purchase a Texan ad. CISPES can't. The no-solicitation rule was created in the '60s to repress political expression, and that's the function it continues to serve as we enter the 1990s.

The Limits of Debate at UT

Many people, mystified by the recent explosion of UT alternative press, ask: Why don't the editors of those journals simply work for The Texan or Utmost? After all, those publications are staffed and edited exclusively by students, and therefore operate under little if any direct administration control.

This argument utterly ignores the ideological hegemony exerted over these officially sanctioned journals by UT's department of journalism (see page 11). If you want to be editor or managing editor of The Texan, or editor of Utmost, you must take five journalism classes, which include copyediting, newswriting, feature writing, layout and media law. For anyone interested enough in journalism to edit either publication, the classes (with the possible exception of media law) are lessons in the obvious, empty applications of ideas already explored through direct experience.

Worse, the journalism school preaches a brand of reportage that systematically bows to the prerogatives of authority figures. J-school teachers typically tell their students to be "dispassionate," "objective," "balanced," and "fair." These seemingly innocuous terms, as applied by the well-trained J-schooler, amount to a mandate to treat official sources with deference and obedience.

Examples of the J-school doctrine in practice abound. Meredith McKittrick, sometimes Polemicist contributor and former journalism major, tried last fall to publish a news article in The Texan about the recruitment and retention of minority faculty at the University. Because of the University's poor record in that department, the article as a whole was critical of the University's efforts. McKittrick quoted administration sources, including the dean of liberal arts, Standish Meacham. But she didn't bother to quote UT's two chief PR hacks, President Bill Cunningham and Vice President Ed Sharpe.

A Texan associate news editor declared this an oversight and ordered her to "get the best quote from Cunningham or Sharpe and make it your lead." She refused. The story appeared the next day under her byline, much shorter than she had been lead to believe it would be, leading with a quote from Ed Sharpe. McKittrick left The Texan over this incident. The article later appeared in expanded form in the November Polemicist, and stands as a definitive indictment of the University's efforts to recruit and retain minority faculty.

Another example of the limits of a journalism-school mentality arises from The Daily Texan's coverage of UT expansion into the Blackland neighborhood. In the summer of 1988, Texan reporter Junda Woo consistently quoted Charles Franklin, then-UT vice president for business affairs, as saying UT had the right to use its eminent domain privilege to force Blackland residents out of their homes, and implied that the University was exhibiting restraint by not using that power.

In reality, Texas law forbids UT from exercising eminent domain rights unless it's for a specific use - at that time, the University hadn't explained just what it wanted that land for, except for "future expansion." Thus, because of the J-school mentality, Woo printed lies in the pages of The Daily Texan just because an authority figure said them. A critical writer that relied on research instead of "official sources" would never have made such an egregious error.

But implicit limitations of journalism aren't the only ways mainstream debate is squelched. The same Junda Woo, now an associate managing editor, explicitly threatened to censor all news stories concerning Polemicist, recently declaring, "If I have anything to say about it," the Polemicist would receive no news coverage. Last fall, Texan editor Karen Adams made a similar threat, though she never followed through on it.

The Texan, by virtue of the regents' rules described above, is the primary, and in many cases the only readily-available source of information on student issues. As such, The Texan and the Texas Student Publications Board are among the most important and influential institutions on campus. It follows, then, The Texan should cover these institutions with precision and care. It has failed miserably, time and again. But with the state-imposed information monopoly in place on campus, most people never realize the omission.

Consider the case of the TSP board's "minority advisory committee," established last October in the wake of bitter complaints about The Texan's racist and racially insensitive coverage. The committee would study how to increase minority recruitment and retention on TSP publications, and to increase sensitivity among Texan staffers to racial issues.

TSP board chairperson Ellen Williams began holding meetings and chose committee members without establishing any requirements. The Texan never covered it. She then appointed Tony Martinez, who Tejas reports wasn't even enrolled as a student and who publicly proclaims his moral opposition to any type of affirmative action. That's tantamount to hiring someone to dig ditches who's morally opposed to ditchdigging.

But The Texan still neglected the issue. Even after Tejas, which comes out three times a semester, scooped The Texan, the story was never covered in the paper's newspages. Karen Adams sits on the TSP board and knew of the meetings. Did she think that after all the uproar over The Texan's racist coverage, the meetings were not news? More likely, The Texan didn't cover the story because of its systemic failure to cover itself.

Another manifestation of this detestable policy occurred when a Texan reporter pulled a knife on her editor, in full view of a roomful of Texan reporters. The incident never ran in the paper. If SA vice-president Chris Bell pulled a knife on SA president Jerry Haddican in front of reporters, you can imagine the bannered front-page headlines.

Editorial Criticism: Free Speech or Loyal Opposition?

Texan loyalists - particularly of the J-school sort - claim that newspages are the place for critical reportage. This role, they argue, belongs to the editorial page. But even here, the Texan line all-too-often falls within the terms of debate dictated by the administration.

Last semester, for example, President Cunningham very carefully defined UT's undergraduate class-availability crisis in terms of "overcrowding" and "underfunding." This implied that there was too little money for too many undergraduates, and that UT's only choices were to cut enrollment or get more money from the Legislature.

But an early-semester guest column by several student leaders established that undergraduate enrollment hadn't increased significantly in 10 years. The crisis, then, stemmed not from too many students, but rather from the failure of administrators to spend growing budget funds on new faculty. This posed a much more challenging problem for Cunningham - to honestly address the problem, he would have to divert funds from certain well-funded departments to certain impoverished ones, instead of simply cutting enrollment.

Editor Karen Adams, however, long after she printed the guest column on her own page, clung dearly to the "overcrowding" myth. In a series of shrill editorials, she chided Cunningham to cut enrollment and beg for more money from the Legislature. On the surface, her position was one of dissent from official policy. But in practice, it reinforced UT's false claims and called for the same solutions Cunningham advocated.

And she continued calling for more state money long after Polemicist showed that the UT budget had expanded dramatically in the '80s, and that administrators simply spent the money implementing state industrial policy instead of teaching students.

Recent signs of editorial-page perestroika - the anti-administration polemics of fall associate editor Greg Weiner and current associate editor Brandon Powell, for example - are encouraging.

But until the news department rejects J-school objectivity, even genuine critics on the editorial page will have to base their writing on news generated by J-school-style reporters. The implications for free speech on campus are chilling. Neutering even student opinion writing by subjecting it to J-school "objectivity" - both in the form of a J-school-approved editor and in "balanced" news coverage - limits the terms of debate in the monopoly student press organ.

Stirrings from below

The administration's other obvious method of limiting the First Admendment - the imposition of "free-speech areas" - has come under direct attack.

Free Speech Area
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peacably assemble."
- First Amendment, The Constitution of the United States

Late last semester editors of student alternative publications gathered in the West Mall free-speech area and illegally practiced free speech: They distributed their magazines, despite the presence of Conseulo Trevino, hatchperson for the Student Activities Office. She ordered them not to distribute; they did anyway, under her watchful eye. But she avoided confrontation by pretending, in the next day's Texan, that no rules were broken and no magazines were distributed. Orwell would cackle.

Three times since last semester, young wags have ventured onto the West Mall, under cover of night, to scrawl "Free Speech Now!!" right in the heart of the "free speech area." And at a Jan. 26 anti-apartheid, pro-divestment rally on the West Mall, Texan editor Brandon Powell led more than 100 students to the South Mall - where huge planters haven't been built to limit space - in defiance of the free-speech rules.

And the UT Student's Association recently purchased nine newspaper racks for use by alternative press on campus.

In a sense, these small revolts can count as victories for free-speech, since unjust rules were defied without punishment. But in another sense, they're not a victory at all: The rules remain.

Free Speech Now!

Apologists point out that the rules do not exclude any one particular set of opinions - that they're therefore not political because they're generalized. But generalized repression cannot be justified, any more than specific repression. The issue is freedom of speech at a supposed "marketplace of ideas."

Academic freedom, i.e., freedom to think, study and publish what one wants without interference, is limited only to professors at UT, and for the most part only in what they say in their classrooms. What professors actually research is usually dictated, at least in part, by who will give them the money and what those people want researched. Generalized restrictions from students leave The Texan - which these days, save a handful of editorials and reporter Greg Weiner's work, serves as an administrative propaganda machine - as the only student voice on campus.

But the idea of extending academic freedom to students has never been addressed. The very definition of a student implies that we know nothing, and have come here to learn. The University operates under the assumption that academic freedom is only for professors, who do know things, and never makes provisions for student expression - in fact, its rules actively discourage it.

There's no such thing as revolution from above. The power to obtain true free speech on campus lies only with students - in the strength of their refusals to follow the University's repressive rules, and in the strength of their demands that those repressive rules be eliminated.

Kierkegaard ridiculed free speech as compensation for those afraid of free thought; but we must first achieve the one before we can achieve the other.