Thugs. Bullies. Violent protestors.
These are some of the demeaning labels that have been used to describe the students at Texas Southern University who showed up to protest at a recent event scheduled to take place at the University; and it has caused many in the community to come to the defense of TSU and its beloved students.
On October 9th, one elected official chose to turn an incident where college students were simply exercising their first amendment right to protest, into an opportunity to spread an exaggerated narrative and spew loaded language surrounding the students at Texas Southern University.
And to make matters worse, conservative State Representative Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) has decided to take things even further; announcing plans to hire an attorney that will name Texas Southern and TSU President Dr. Austin Lane as defendants in a lawsuit “for willfully obstructing his First Amendment rights.”
This all began when Rep. Cain was invited to the Thurgood Marshall School Law, located on the campus of Texas Southern, by The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, or The Federalist Society for short. The Federalist Society is a group of conservatives and libertarians seeking reform to the American legal system, and they wanted Rep. Cain to come on campus to speak about his political views and his experience in the Texas Legislature.
Several TSU students had become aware of Rep. Cain’s scheduled visit, so they showed up prepared to protest his appearance, and to express their opposition to Rep. Cain being given a platform to share what many protestors believe are extremely far-right and racist views.
Several signs were displayed at the event, such as “Briscoe You Forgot Your Hood,” “Pro-Black is NOT Anti-White,” “Black Lives Matter” and many more.
Other students were captured on video chanting statements such as “When a racist comes to town, shut it down” and “No hate anywhere! You don’t get a platform here.”
Prior to his arrival on TSU’s campus, Rep. Cain had been invited by TSU second-year law student and The Federalist Society student representative, Daniel “DC” Caldwell, who is currently running against incumbent and Houston Community College (HCC) Board Vice Chair Dr. Carolyn Evans-Shabazz for the District IV Trustee seat. According to Caldwell, the event had been cleared through the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, but The Federalist Society was not an unauthorized TSU student organization at the time of the event, which is what caused the event to be postponed.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the campus, Dr. Lane was meeting with State Senator Borris Miles, when he received word that the event at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law was taking place, and that TSU police had been called to the scene. After quickly making his way to the event and assessing the overall situation, Dr. Lane learned that the event had been scheduled through the Thurgood Marshall School of Law by an unauthorized TSU student organization.
Dr. Lane immediately took to the podium to try and defuse the situation, and calmly informed all attendees that the event could not proceed because The Federalist Society had not been a registered University student organization at the time of the event.
Sen. Miles then asked Rep. Cain to go outside of the room so that they could talk about the situation, and help him understand the issues related to the unauthorized organization.
After all had seemingly been resolved, Rep. Cain released the following statement after the event:
“Today I attended an event scheduled by the TSU chapter of the Federalist Society a few months ago. I was greeted by campus officials, given a guest parking voucher, and brought into a room in which the administration had specifically requested the talk occur. Then Black Lives Matter came in and bullied the administration into ending the event. It’s a sad day for universities across Texas whenever speech and a variety of views are prevented from being presented due to bullies.”
It is important to emphasize that the event involving Rep. Cain did not end because of any TSU student protestors demonstrating violence. All in all, there was no violence. No one got physically close to or laid hands on Rep. Cain. There were no ‘thugs’ present. There were no ‘bullies’ there. The only individuals simply voicing their opposition to Rep. Cain’s views and beliefs at the event were TSU student protestors, who had every right to exercise their first amendment rights on the University campus they call home.
Sen. Miles released a scathing response to Rep. Cain’s statement and handling of the situation, saying in a statement:
“Free speech is our first amendment right and it is near and dear to my heart. Our community exercised this right during the Civil Rights Movement and continues to exercise this right today. Recently, I chose to help defuse a potentially volatile situation at Texas Southern University, to protect the students, faculty, staff and a sitting state representative. It was evident that the university administration was not adequately informed about the unauthorized meeting and made the correct decision to postpone the meeting because of the escalating tensions and lack of security. The university is dedicated to working with the student group in the future to hold the program. This was nothing more than miscommunication between different entities at TSU and I explained that to Representative Briscoe Cain. However, the leader of a right-wing group decided to take it a step further by referring to my actions as “thuggish.” He decided to use this racist, disrespectful and discriminatory rhetoric to create further divisions for his own personal gain. As a sitting state senator and a ten-year veteran of the Texas Legislature, I am appalled by anyone who would choose to use such loaded language, especially when our state and nation are in need of uniting, not dividing.”
Rep. Cain has deep ties to The Federalist Society, in that while he attended South Texas College of Law as a law student, he served as president of the organization. He is a first-term legislator who defeated his incumbent opponent Wayne Smith by only 23 votes back in 2016.
It is also no secret that Cain is considered by many as a far-right conservative. As of June 2017, Cain was listed as a member of the Texas Freedom Caucus – a legislative caucus in the state House. According to the Texas Freedom Caucus’s website, they aim to support “liberty-minded, grassroots Texans, who want bold action to protect life, strengthen families, defend the U.S. and Texas Bills of Rights, restrain government and revitalize personal and economic freedoms in the State of Texas.”
However, it was not Rep. Cain’s views and beliefs that led to the event ending early.
Texas Southern has a long history of allowing conservatives and Republicans who have been properly invited by a registered student organization, to come speak on campus. They recently hosted a “Discussion of Politics and the Law” with Republican Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, as well as a conversation on politics with Republican Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court Nathan L. Hecht. The University was also scheduled to hear from Republican Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Glenn Hegar recently, but the event was postponed because of the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey.
Texas Southern has more than 119 registered student organizations and clubs for students. Once campus administrators were made aware by TSU’s police department of a disturbance at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law involving TSU students, University officials conducted a check of recognized student organizations, where it was quickly determined that The Federalist Society was not a sanctioned University organization and that proper scheduling procedures were not followed. TSU’s vice president of Student Affairs immediately scheduled a meeting with The Federalist Society student organizer after the event to inform him of university procedures, and is working with them to assist with registration process and procedures.
According to the Texas Southern University Student Code of Conduct, Section III, Freedom of Expression Policy:
“Texas Southern University is committed to fostering a learning environment where free inquiry and expression are encouraged. The purpose of Texas Southern University’s Freedom of Expression Policy is to provide for organized expressive activities to be conducted on the grounds of the University in a manner consistent with these principles. The University expects that persons engaging in expressive activities will comply with University policies and applicable local, state, and federal laws. Texas Southern University maintains its right to place reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on expressive activities. Additionally, any activities that are unlawful or disruptive to the normal operations of the University, including classes and University business activities, will not be tolerated. Groups or individuals engaging in disruptive activities or failing to comply with University policies and applicable local, state, and federal laws may face immediate removal from the campus and other appropriate actions by University officials and University police. Freedom of Expression is applicable to students, faculty and staff, who wish to engage in extracurricular, organized expressive activities including public speaking, literature distribution, poster displays, sign displays, any other type of graphic exhibitions, expressive performances, petitioning, or similar noncommercial activities at locations on University property. These guidelines do not apply to official University activities. University grounds and buildings are reserved for use by Texas Southern University students, faculty, and staff, except as otherwise permitted by policies of the University. Expressive activities permitted under these guidelines do not imply official endorsement by the University. Groups or individuals engaged in expressive activities are responsible for the content of their expression.”
Dr. Lane expressed his disappointment in how many have labeled his students, and wants everyone to be clear on the University’s position on free speech on TSU’s campus.
“Our position has never changed,” said Dr. Lane. “We are committed to fostering a learning environment where free inquiry and expression are encouraged. The university expects that persons engaging in expressive activities will comply with university policies and applicable local, state, and federal laws. TSU maintains its right to place reasonable time, place and manner restrictions in place to protect those speaking and those that have opposing views. We are not concerned with the content of any speech, only the time, place and manner.”
The University has since extended a public invitation for Rep. Cain to return to the campus as a guest speaker to hear from him in accordance with university procedures, but according to University officials, they have not received an acceptance from Rep. Cain or his representatives.
When media outlets across the country covered the protests at The University of Florida, which brought out thousands of protestors and hundreds of police…their students were called “hecklers” and simply, “college protestors”….When The University of California at Berkley erupted in chaos – complete with violence and arrests – blame was immediately placed on “outside agitators” and not “peaceful protesting students.”
During Rep. Cain’s recent visit to TSU, there was no violence. No arrests. But several media outlets labeled TSU students, along with Sen. Miles who happened to be on campus that day, as thugs. They called TSU students, bullies and violent. TSU students were doing what thousands of other students at college campuses across the world do when faced with speakers they believe spread hateful rhetoric – they were exercising their right to protest. It is disheartening to see the labels placed upon our students. And it is this type of divisive, loaded language that is perpetuating the problems in our country today.
Everyone deserves to have their voices heard, even if they don’t agree on select issues, and it is extremely important that every person is able to express their points of view.
However, with the level of discord coming from the president and others in Washington D.C., some of that discord has seemingly found its way to one of the few places where freedom of speech and differing points of view are usually welcomed and embraced – colleges and universities across the country.
The Forward Times reached out to Rep. Cain to ask whether he would accept the invitation to return to Texas Southern, but he has yet to respond at the time of this article’s publication. We will continue to follow these developments and keep our readers up-to-date on the latest.