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Lawyer accuses UT Austin of violating free speech rights of students who protested TAs' removal

A photo of the UT tower, framed by trees, on a blue sky day in Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
KUT News
UT removed teaching assistants Callie Kennedy and Parham Daghighi from their positions over a message they shared with their class.

UT Austin is violating the First Amendment rights of four current and former students who participated in a protest at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work in December, their lawyer said.

The students, one of whom graduated last year, face disciplinary action for their involvement in the protest, which Attorney George Lobb described as “milquetoast.”

But UT said while the incident is under investigation, students violated university policies and the First Amendment does not protect their conduct.

According to Lobb, the students are accused of disruptive conduct, unauthorized property entry, failure to comply, as well as violations of local, state or federal laws that were not defined.

The students are Evan Scope Crafts, Valkyrie Church, Sameeha Rizvi and a fourth student who wants to remain anonymous.

“It’s like they took a giant bowl of mud and threw it at a wall, and they’re looking to see what part of this sticks,” Lobb said.

Federal law limits what universities can say publicly about any disciplinary action a student faces.

The students were speaking out against the university’s decision to remove grad students Callie Kennedy and Parham Daghighi from their teaching assistant positions after they criticized UT’s response to the Israel-Hamas war and shared mental health resources with Arab and Muslim students. Other students and faculty have called for them to be reinstated, but they were offered positions as research assistants instead.

Lobb said the students delivered a list of demands to School of Social Work Dean Allan Cole, including the request that Kennedy and Daghighi be reinstated as TAs.

“I represent four UT students who currently face sanctions up to and including expulsion for reading out a letter to the dean of social work,” Lobb said.

In a social media post following the demonstration, UT said protesters “crossed the line of acceptable behavior and violated University rules multiple times last week.” The university said it would investigate and punish anyone who violated policies or the law.

According to UT, the students walked into Dean Cole’s office, refused to get out and tried to stop him from leaving. Cole was on the phone at the time arranging his father’s funeral.

Lobb called it a matter of bad timing.

“These students, I know them well, they aren't of the character where they’re going to go in and read a demand letter like they did to a dean when he’s on the phone with a funeral home,” he said.

But this week, UT reiterated its stance that the protesters violated university policies.

"Organizing a large group of protesters to enter a locked building, barge into a dean’s private office, intentionally cause a disruption, and delay his ability to exit is unacceptable. These actions constitute a prohibited disruption," UT said in an emailed statement. "Regardless of how protesters justify those activities after the fact, it does not change the fact that their conduct violated our rules."

Lobb said he thinks it's the content of the speech UT is taking issue with, however, not the manner in which the speech occurred.

“If the origin of this story had to do with genocide in Darfur I wouldn’t be speaking with you,” he said. “This has to do with the University of Texas’ knee-jerk reaction to anything that could be a violation of boycott divestment sanction law."

Lobb was referring to a law the Texas Legislature passed in 2017 that prohibits state agencies from contracting with companies that boycott Israel.

He said he expects a decision this spring on whether the students will face disciplinary action. According to Lobb, UT could punish the student who graduated by withholding their transcripts or revoking their degree. He said he is prepared to take the case to court if the university punishes them.

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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