Professor Sues University of Texas for First Amendment Violations

UT Threatens and Retaliates Against Administration Critic

February 9, 2023   •  By IFS staff   •  
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Austin, Texas – A finance professor is suing officials at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) who threatened to punish him for his criticism of the university by threatening his job, reducing his pay, and removing his affiliation with UT’s Salem Center.

In a complaint filed in the Austin federal court, Dr. Richard Lowery, an Associate Professor of Finance at the McCombs School of Business at UT-Austin, said the officials at the state’s flagship university violated his constitutional right to criticize government officials. The lawsuit also claims the UT administration harmed his right to academic freedom.

Professor Lowery is well known for his vigorous commentary on university affairs. His articles have appeared widely, including in The Hill, the Texas Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, and The College Fix. He questioned the UT administration’s approaches to critical-race theory, affirmative action, academic freedom, competence-based performance measures, and the future of capitalism.

One key target of Prof. Lowery’s critiques was the UT administration’s use of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) requirements to filter out competent academics who dissent from the DEI ideology.

Lowery’s lawyers wrote in the complaint that UT’s administration “responded with a campaign to silence Lowery.”

The campaign started by pressuring Carlos Carvalho, another professor of business at the UT McCombs School who is also the Executive Director of the Salem Center for Public Policy, an academic institute that is part of the McCombs School. Lowery is an Associate Director and a Senior Scholar at the Salem Center and reports to Carvalho.

In the summer of 2022, Sheridan Titman, one of the senior UT officials named in the lawsuit, told Carvalho, “We need to do something about Richard.” According to the lawsuit, “he added that [UT] President [Jay] Hartzell and Dean [Lillian] Mills were upset about Lowery’s political advocacy.” Titman wanted to know if ‘we can ask him to tone it down?’”

Carvalho understood this as a threat by Titman, directed at Lowery, but initially refused to convey it. Carvalho explained to Titman that the First Amendment protected Prof. Lowery’s right to expression.

Despite this, the administrators ratcheted up the pressure on Carvalho and Lowery. When Carvalho again resisted calls to discipline Lowery over his speech. Dean Mills, the lead defendant in the lawsuit, threatened to remove Carvalho from his Executive Director post. “I don’t need to remind you that you serve at my pleasure,” she said.

These were among the UT administration’s threats to Lowery’s “job, pay, institute affiliation, research opportunities, [and] academic freedom.”

Some in the administration even “allowed, or at least did not retract, a UT employee’s request that police surveil Lowery’s speech, because he might contact politicians or other influential people.”

“Fearing further retribution, Lowery began self-censoring.” He locked his Twitter account, which hid it from the general public. He also “stopped using Twitter entirely and has curtailed his public speech critical of the UT Administration.”

Attorneys at the Institute for Free Speech, a nonpartisan First Amendment advocacy group, are representing Lowery in court. Michael E. Lovins, of the Austin law firm Lovins Trosclair, also represents Lowery in the lawsuit.

“Professors at public universities have the right to criticize administrators and speak to elected officials,” said Del Kolde, Senior Attorney at the Institute for Free Speech. “The First Amendment protects such speech and, in a free society, DEI programs and UT’s president are not above public criticism.”

The lawsuit says the threats by UT officials “are designed to silence Lowery’s criticisms or … make it less critical….” The threats “also prospectively chill his right to academic freedom.”

His lawyers also alleged that the officials “acted to retaliate against Lowery for his protected speech because it was embarrassing to them.”

The UT administration also “feared the possibility of elected officials scrutinizing their behavior.” As one employee wrote, when urging campus police to surveil his now-protected tweets, “we are more worried about the people he reaches than him. Some of his supporters are authors, podcasters, and politicians.” Lowery’s tweets often tagged the Texas Governor and Lt. Governor, which added to the UT administration’s concerns.

In addition to chilling Lowery’s speech, UT’s actions also “effectively removed an important part of his job duties by restricting” his academic freedom as a UT professor. The defendants deprived him of his right to critique ideas, policies, hiring, … and to otherwise participate in the life of the mind and academic dialogue on terms equal to his peers on the faculty.”

The lawsuit asks the court to:

  • bar UT officials from threatening or acting on the threats made to Lowery for his protected speech;
  • declare that the “threats against Lowery amounted to unconstitutional state action designed to chill Lowery’s protected speech and retaliate against him;”
  • and award costs and attorney’s fees as provided by federal law.

The defendants in the lawsuit are three officials at UT-Austin, who are all sued in their official capacity: Lillian Mills, Dean of the McCombs School of Business; Ethan Burris, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs of the McCombs School of Business; and Sheridan Titman, Finance Department Chair for the McCombs School of Business.

The case is Lowery v. Mills et al. in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, Austin Division. To read the complaint, click here.

About the Institute for Free Speech

The Institute for Free Speech is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that promotes and defends the First Amendment rights to freely speak, assemble, publish, and petition the government. Originally known as the Center for Competitive Politics, it was founded in 2005 by Bradley A. Smith, a former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission. The Institute is the nation’s largest organization dedicated solely to protecting First Amendment political rights.

IFS staff

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