Federal judge overturns University of Texas ban on leafleting by outsiders; some restrictions remain

TEXAS — A federal district judge in December overturned a University of Texas at Austin policy that bans outsiders from distributing leaflets at an off-campus university building.

Judge Sam Sparks ruled that UT’s Frank Erwin Center, which hosts public events such as concerts and sporting events, should be treated differently than areas located on the university’s main campus, and attempts to limit free speech there are unconstitutional.

Four members of a local chapter of the Green Party USA challenged UT’s policy after almost being arrested for passing out brochures in front of the center in 1996.

University administrators argued that most of the sidewalk in front of the center was university property, and the city only owned an unmarked portion of the sidewalk, but Sparks disagreed.

“The Court declines to recognize this nonsensical fiction,” he wrote, later adding, “Because the entire paved portion is uniform and serves the same purpose as a public sidewalk, it is a traditional public forum for First Amendment purposes.”

In the same ruling, though, Sparks upheld a university policy prohibiting outsiders from distributing pamphlets on-campus in an area designated as a free-speech zone for students and faculty members.