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Student groups sue Texas governor, universities over executive order on campus free speech

Pro-Palestinian student protestors at UTSA
Josh Peck
Pro-Palestinian student protestors at UTSA

The Council on Islamic-American Relations filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday challenging the legality of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order on campus free speech.

The Muslim civil rights organization filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Democratic Socialists of America and the chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Houston and the University of Texas at Dallas.

Both chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and the Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter at the University of Texas at San Antonio have organized pro-Palestinian campus protests. They say the executive order Abbott signed in March violates their First Amendment rights.

The order directs the state’s public universities to update their free speech policies to combat activities the governor describes as antisemitic, and names Students for Justice in Palestine as one of the groups that should be punished.

CAIR’s complaint argues that “Governor Abbott’s executive order, along with the campus-level efforts to comply with it, are obvious attempts to illegally suppress a viewpoint critical of one particular foreign country.”

It asks the court to find the order illegal and asks the court issue an injunction against implementing it.

In response to a request for a comment on the lawsuit, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said “Texas will always stand with Israel.”

“Across the country, acts of antisemitism have grown in number, size, and danger to the Jewish community since Hamas' deadly attack on October 7th. Antisemitism is never acceptable in Texas, and we will do everything we can to fight it,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

In a news conference announcing the lawsuit, CAIR National Senior Litigation attorney Gadeir Abbas said he was confident the student groups will win.

“The First Amendment has durably stood for the promise that free speech is real,” Abbas said. It's real if you're saying something that is unpopular. It's real if you're criticizing someone that's powerful. It's real, even if the people around you don't want to hear it.”

Representatives of CAIR gave their full names during the press conference, but students who spoke only gave their first names out of fear of retribution.

Frances with the University of Houston chapter of SJP said the executive order and their administrations’ response to recent protests are an attempt to intimidate them.

For years, we have campaigned for divestment from companies complicit in the occupation, ethnic cleansing and current and ongoing genocide in Gaza. Our administration has ignored us and more recently, they have continued to send police after us,” Frances said.

We will never stop organizing for the liberation of Palestine on our college campuses. It is the moral imperative of our time to combat the complicity of our institutions in the genocide of Palestinians.”

Israel has been charged but not convicted of genocide. Both Israel and the U.S. deny the charge of genocide and the description of the war in Gaza as ethnic cleansing.

The protests in Texas are part of the turmoil ignited on campuses throughout the U.S. since Israel began its offensive in Gaza. That was in response to a Hamas attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, which killed 1,200 people. Hundreds more people were taken hostage. Gaza's health ministry claims Israel's operation has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians.

CAIR’s lawsuit names Gov. Abbott and the leaders of the University of Texas and University of Houston systems as defendants, and also names UTSA President Taylor Eighmy as an individual defendant.

Eighmy is singled out in the complaint for a new UTSA policy that bans student protesters from using the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Many supporters of Israel say the phrase is antisemitic; pro-Palestinian groups disagree. In his executive order, Gov. Abbott also calls it antisemitic.

During the press conference, Sean with the UTSA chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America repeated the phrase.

“To Abbott and others in power who challenge our freedom of speech and attempt to silence our support for Palestine and continue their complicity in this genocide, we have the following message: We will not let it stand. We will not allow you to silence us,” Sean said. “We will continue to speak out against this genocide and our country's complicity in it. We will not allow the people in power to equate our calls for peace to antisemitism.”

A spokesperson for UTSA said the university does not comment on pending litigation.

Copyright 2024 Texas Public Radio

Camille Phillips covers education for Texas Public Radio.