HOUSTON — One student believes transgender women shouldn’t compete in women’s sports. One thinks pay disparities between men and women are a fair consequence of the free market. Another said she believes policies supported by Black Lives Matter are corrosive to race relations in America.

All three said they feel afraid to share those views with their classmates. Last week, they sued the University of Houston System and top administrators, claiming they are being stifled by an anti-harassment policy that prohibits behavior such as slurs, negative stereotyping and denigrating jokes.

“These students want to engage in speech that is arguably covered by the University’s policy, but they credibly fear that the expression of their deeply held views will be considered ‘intimidating,’ ‘denigrating,’ ‘negative stereotyp(es)’ and the like,” the lawsuit says. “Rather than risk being reported, investigated, or sanctioned, they do not speak as freely as they otherwise would.”

The three students — who describe themselves as politically conservative — are the latest to speak out in a broader movement against what they deem to be “cancel culture” on college campuses. That effort, mostly led by Republican-affiliated groups, portrays universities as increasingly liberal and less willing to protect free speech out of political correctness.

The three belong to Speech First, a nonprofit organization that has sued several universities across the country over policies it claims limit free speech. The lawsuit against leaders at UH and the UH System, filed in a Houston-based federal court, names university President and system Chancellor Renu Khator, Board of Regents Chairman Tilman Fertitta and 13 other university leaders for alleged violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Fertitta is a major financial contributor to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

The UH System stood behind its policy’s legality and urged a prompt resolution of the claims.

“We are aware of the new lawsuit filed by Speech First,” a UH System statement says. “All fundamental rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, including the First Amendment, are vital to any public institution and the citizens of this state, and are extremely important to the University of Houston System.

“This lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the University of Houston System’s Anti-Discrimination policy based on the First Amendment. We believe Speech First has misconstrued or misread this policy as our policy clearly indicates that actionable harassment must be ‘unlawful, severe, pervasive, or persistent treatment,’ the standard cited by Plaintiffs and adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The suit comes days after Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he plans to introduce legislation next year to designate the teaching of critical race theory as “good cause” for tenure revocation at public universities. Critical race theory is a decades-old academic movement that views racial discrimination as deeply embedded in social structures and the legal system.

Under a harassment policy last revised in December, UH prohibits speech against “protected classes” that are shielded from discrimination based on race, sexual orientation and religion, among other things. Harassment is defined as treatment that is “severe, pervasive, or persistent” and is humiliating, abusive or threatening conduct showing hostility or aversion toward an individual or group; is intimidating, hostile or abusive in learning, living or working environments; or interferes unreasonably with a person’s academics or work.

Examples include epithets or slurs, negative stereotyping, denigrating jokes and display of written or graphic material, according to the policy.

The three plaintiffs are only described as Students A, B and C, and they hold a range of views that they say are unpopular among college students.

Many of those views concern LGBTQ rights. All three students voiced discomfort acknowledging a person’s pronouns that fall outside a cisgender gender identity, and two said they think transgender women should not be allowed to play women’s sports. One student said he believes children are best raised by heterosexual couples, according to the lawsuit.

Student B, a sophomore, has “no ill will” against the LGBT community but doesn’t understand the use of “they/them” or “ze/zir” pronouns, an attorney wrote in the litigation.

“He doesn’t want to be required to use someone’s ‘preferred pronouns’ and play along with the fiction that people can ‘decide’ whether they are a male, a female, or neither,” the lawsuit says.

Student A, a freshman, said he believes affirmative action is racist. Student B stated his belief that pay disparities between men and women come down to “compensating individuals for what their work is worth.”

Student C, a freshman, has concerns about Black Lives Matter, according to the lawsuit. Creating specifically “black spaces” on campus is segregation, and the idea that any person is privileged solely because of being white is the definition of racism, she said. She also thinks Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movements led by many Palestinian groups on campuses are antisemitic, the lawsuit says.

Attorneys for Speech First argue that the policy violates the First Amendment by being “overbroad” — covering some protected speech and chilling students’ free speech and expression, according to the lawsuit.

The three students want to speak to their fellow classmates about certain topics but are aware that some of those might fall under the harassment policy, they said. They used as an example a UH presentation in which an administrator allegedly stated that a violation might occur if they continually use improper pronouns or if they say something that might be considered hate speech.

“Knowing that University administrators consider expressions of her views to be ‘harassment’ only enhances her fear of speaking openly about them,” lawyers wrote of Student C.

Speech First has spearheaded and settled lawsuits against other large private universities, including the University of Texas. The university in December 2020 dismantled its Campus Climate Response Team, which aided students in reporting alleged incidents of bias, in response to Speech First litigation over its policies on nondiscrimination.

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