Texas Senate Hears Update on Police Response to Campus Protests

Texas Senate subcommittee discusses police response to recent pro-Palestinian protests on state campuses, including arrests and free speech implications.

On Tuesday morning, a select subcommittee of the Texas Senate received updates on the police response to recent pro-Palestinian protests across several state campuses. The interim committee aims to gather information and public testimony to potentially inform changes in law or policy in the upcoming January legislative session.

Tensions on college campuses rose in late spring, leading to police and Department of Public Safety (DPS) trooper arrests at UT-Austin and UT-Dallas in late April. Similar protests at the University of North Texas and UT-San Antonio, however, did not result in arrests.

On April 30th, scores of students at the University of North Texas walked out of class, calling for divestment from Israeli companies and weapons manufacturers. The protest was peaceful, with no violence or arrests. In contrast, protests at UT Austin and UT Dallas saw more intense police responses.

“We prepare for all of them, but we look at intelligence to dictate our response,” said Lt. Colonel Freeman Martin from DPS, addressing the subcommittee of the Higher Education Committee. Martin explained that protest organizers in Austin and Dallas had planned to camp, block buildings, and put up barriers, which violated university rules on the “time, place, and manner” of protests.

UT Austin professor and First Amendment expert Steven Collis testified that while the government cannot stifle free speech, certain actions like vandalism and blocking access are not protected as free speech. Collis emphasized that aggressive or offensive speech is protected unless it incites imminent physical harm or lawbreaking.

In Austin, 55 protesters were arrested on April 24th and 79 on April 29th. Charges from the first day were dismissed, while the second day’s charges are still pending.

Over ninety people provided public testimony on the protests, free speech issues, and the new law eliminating diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts on campus. Julia Heilrayne from Austin, whose sister was arrested, argued that students’ rights were violated. Meanwhile, Jewish student Levi Fox voiced concerns about rising hate and misinformation on campuses.

University chancellors reported over-preparation for graduation ceremonies, with few demonstrations occurring. State leaders plan to continue preparations throughout the summer as the Israel-Hamas conflict persists.

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