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About 150 people testify at Texas Senate hearing on SB 17, college free speech. Here's why

Lily Kepner
Austin American-Statesman

About 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, a small group of University of Texas students, staff and community members gathered in front of the warmly lit UT Tower. Unlike many other recent gatherings on campus, the group wasn't carrying signs, it wasn't chanting, and those in attendance weren't all from the same organizations.

But they were all set on the same mission: to march to the Texas Capitol ahead of the long-awaited 9 a.m. Senate Higher Education Subcommittee hearing on Senate Bill 17, antisemitism on college campuses and free speech, to express to lawmakers their experiences with what's happening at their institutions.

"It’s being used in ways that I think even the legislators didn’t expect,” Anne Lewis, a UT professor who was at the Tower with the Texas State Employees Union's executive board, said about SB 17, a bill that went into effect in January and banned diversity, equity and inclusion offices and initiatives at all Texas public universities and colleges.

“On the ground here, of course, they don't see what happens when they enforce these things," Lewis added.

ϲʿֱ than 200 people signed up to give public testimony at the Senate subcommittee hearing, and 148 people did. The majority spoke about SB 17's consequences, but many also discussed their concern with the massive police response to the pro-Palestinian protests held at UT over the past few weeks and their worries over free speech.

From left, Aman Odeh, Jessica and Gracie I. in the overflow room Tuesday to watch the Texas Senate Higher Education Subcommittee discuss campus free speech and the implementation of the Senate Bill 17 ban on diversity initiatives.

The testimony was a stark difference from the subcommittee's agenda — which included invited panelists, including a Jewish UT student and a representative from the Anti-Defamation League, both of whom spoke about how the pro-Palestinian protests had antisemitic qualities and were threatening to Jewish students, and university chancellors who affirmed their full commitment to enforcing SB 17.

In his opening remarks and in a statement sent after the hearing, Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who authored SB 17 and chairs the subcommittee, connected the pro-Palestinian protests — which in part called on universities to divest from Israeli weapons manufacturers — to the activism seen across the country in the summer of 2020 after George Floyd, a Black man who was murdered by a white cop in Philadelphia, when demonstrators advocated for more equity and improvements to DEI resources on campus. He said Texas would not stand to be told what to do.

"The rise of DEI and the actions of outside agitators are both examples of small groups of individuals who believe they can control Texas higher education and force institutions to bend to their demands," Creighton said. "But we will not tolerate this in Texas."

Creighton also said he supports equality and a merit-based system in higher education and that he is "encouraged" by creative programs that reach "students that reflect the diversity of our state."

Hanna Barakat leaves the lectern after speaking during the public comment section of Tuesday's Senate Higher Education Subcommittee meeting.

Texas university students, staff testify to Senate panel on SB 17?

Several UT staff members who had complied with SB 17 — but had formerly worked in DEI positions and suddenly lost their jobs April 2 — also gave public testimony of their losses to the subcommittee, as did several people who were arrested at the UT protests, some crying and explaining how difficult it was to return to campus.

One person, who spoke in the last hour of the 11-hour hearing, asked Creighton why no Palestinian or Pro-Palestinian person involved in the protests was invited to speak at the earlier panel about campus free speech. The subcommittee was not required to answer questions from those participating in the public comment portion of the hearing, and Creighton did not respond to the speaker.

"There was no representation from those who have really been impacted by these anti-free speech movements, which really has been the Palestinian community and their allies on campus," said Noor Saleh, a UT Law School student and a member of the new group Parents for Peace, who did not testify but attended the hearing and spoke to the American-Statesman. She said the panel felt "one-sided," which felt "irresponsible."

Saleh said it is devastating to hear about antisemitism at the protests, but she said it does not reflect the broader movement. At UT, she said, organizers "have been very clear that we do not endorse, nor do we support any sort of antisemitic behavior."

Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, the author of SB 17, listens to speakers Tuesday. Creighton said, "The rise of DEI and the actions of outside agitators are both examples of small groups of individuals who believe they can control Texas higher education and force institutions to bend to their demands."

Several Jewish individuals who are supportive of the protests also testified about the "weaponization" of antisemitism to suppress anti-Israel speech.

Sam Law, a UT graduate student, said in his testimony that he has not faced antisemitism at the protests. He said one of the most impactful moments for him over the past month was attending a Shabbat service on the South Lawn with Palestinian, Muslim, Christian and Jewish students praying for the people in Gaza, where more than 34,000 people have been reportedly killed as Israel continues bombarding the region in response to a deadly Oct. 7 attack on the Jewish state by Hamas, a militant Palestinian group.

Many students, professors, staff members and alums spoke about how SB 17 has been used in ways the law did not intend, such as affecting their ability to get grants or student support programs at UT like the Monarch Program, which helped immigrant students and those without documentation as well as confusing the grant application process for professors.

"Everything we told y'all we were scared of has happened," said Izabella de la Garza, a UT alum involved in Texas Students for DEI who testified against SB 17 at the Legislature last year when she was a senior.

Alicia ϲʿֱno, a UT staff member and UT alum who was laid off April 2, called on lawmakers to further clarify SB 17 to prevent overcompliance by universities and the unnecessary closing of programs, like those at UT.

"The bill has caused our students to feel unwanted and unsupported," ϲʿֱno said in her written testimony. "It has taken away our centers, programs, and necessary critical services."

Members of the UT campus community, including students, faculty and alumni, begin a march Tuesday from the UT Tower to the Capitol to attend the Texas Senate Higher Education Subcommittee hearing on campus free speech and SB 17.

How will SB 17 testimony be considered?

Creighton thanked everyone who spoke for their testimony and said the hearing "will lay the groundwork" for the next legislative session, set to begin in January. He expressed gratitude that he is able to hear from everyone, and other committee members thanked him for holding the hearing.

But Maria Unda and Jenna Doane, both of whom have doctorates in education policy from UT and marched from the Tower to the Capitol and stayed all day to testify about SB 17's far-reaching effects, said they don't know if the subcommittee will listen.

Unda and Doane have studied diversity within UT, and said they believe SB 17 will hurt recruitment and graduation rates. Doane also said there is a connection between SB 17 and the reaction to the protests in its impact on free speech.

"I think a lot of this centers around the suppression of freedom of speech, of academic freedom," Doane told the Statesman. "Now, faculty, staff are extremely afraid to share just about anything that they might get reported or fired for."

People march from the UT campus to the Capitol to attend Tuesday's hearing.

Unda said her hope is that grassroots organizing will give power to student voices and bring awareness to what's going on.

Kamyia Gibbs, who just finished her fourth year at UT, drove from Houston to the Capitol for the hearing. She said she wished the lawmakers had asked more questions of the students to help improve SB 17.

Sandra Isiguzo, who just graduated in neuroscience from UT, said she thinks the hearing date being held after UT's commencement ceremony, made it more difficult for people to testify.

"At the student level, (SB 17) is just a mess," Isiguzo said. "Because this bill is so vague that people are just closing things and not supporting students because they don't want to get in trouble."

Isiguzo attended Black Graduation, a UT cultural graduation that previously was funded by the university but now is paid for with money raised by students due to SB 17, which she said was incredibly emotional.

"The messaging is that they don't want us here," Isiguzo said.

Saleh said she went to law school to connect marginalized communities to lawmakers. Yesterday, she said, the significant public testimony felt like an embodiment of that goal.

"To see that happen yesterday was incredible," Saleh said, adding that she wants lawmakers to know that students will not stop advocating and organizing for what they believe in.