Students sue UTEP over free speech policy

Associated Press
March 7, 2003

EL PASO -- A University of Texas at El Paso policy requiring students to get permits for speeches and deliver them in "free-speech areas" is a violation of the First Amendment, according to a lawsuit filed by two students.

The lawsuit, filed by sophomore Ruben L. Reyes and junior Kristofer Johnson, names four UTEP administrators, including President Diana Natalicio, and members of the University of Texas System Board of Regents.

"I am amazed that people who presume to be teachers are limiting the rights of students in such an extreme and unreasonable way," said Maria Hernandez, an attorney representing the students. "If the regents will negotiate with us, we think we can probably reach a reasonable settlement."

Officials of the UT System declined to comment on the lawsuit.

However, UTEP Dean of Students William D. Schafer, who was named in the lawsuit, said the university supports "the free exchange of information and expression."

"I think this boils down to how does a university campus create an atmosphere where that can occur where you're not disrupting classes," Schafer told the El Paso Times in today's editions.

Reyes, 29, who is running for a seat on the El Paso City Council and ran for the state office of Comptroller on the Green Party ticket last year, said the lawsuit is a matter of checks and balances.

Reyes had submitted 24 requests for permits to have events in UTEP free-speech zones since Nov. 4, including one rally to discuss "Censorship on Texas Universities." All those requests were denied, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of two other cases in Texas -- one at the University of Houston and one at the University of Texas at Austin -- that challenge the constitutionality of free speech zones on public university campuses.

In November, a University of Texas at Austin task force that included Doug Laycock, the law school associate dean, recommended loosening free speech rules on campus in response to mounting criticism of school policies.