FIRE gives UTD a red light, demands Spirit Rocks return


FIRE’s rating follows their Dec. 1 letter to UTD demanding the Spirit Rocks be reinstated and their Jan. 16 blog post urging for the Spirit Rocks’ restoration, after Student Affairs’ Nov. 20 decision to uproot the Spirit Rocks due to “extended political discourse.” FIRE, an organization focused on protecting First Amendment rights on college campuses, spoke with The Mercury in the immediate aftermath of the removal, where they described the university’s decision as harmful at best and viewpoint discrimination at worst.

“Removing this forum now over objections to students’ political viewpoints about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict constitutes impermissible viewpoint discrimination,” FIRE Program Officer Graham Piro wrote in the Dec. 1 letter. “We urge UT Dallas to restore its Spirit Rocks to their prior location … while protecting the right to use the rocks for expression of students’ choosing.”

UTD has received a “red light” rating every year since 2018, defined on the annual report as a university “both clearly and substantially restrict[ing] freedom of speech or [barring] public access to its speech-related policies.” Of the nearly 500 universities surveyed for the report, 20% earned a “red light” rating, and three of the 21 Texas schools surveyed earned a “red light” rating. The percentage of institutions receiving “red light” ratings has been increasing since 2022. This is the second-worst free speech rating a school can receive; the worst is “warning,” which FIRE defines as “when a private university clearly and consistently states that it holds a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech.”

UTD has also been ranked 114 out of 248 colleges surveyed for FIRE’s 2024 Free Speech Rankings. The report, which gathers students’ opinions about free speech climates on campus, ranks UTD highly in tolerance for conservative viewpoints, while its lowest rankings are in “openness” and “comfort.”

FIRE has previously marked the sexual harassment section of UTDSP5005, the Student Grievances policy, as red-lighted. It also challenged UTD’s 2022 investigation into professor Timothy Farage’s homophobic tweets and the 2023 sanctioning of a UTD student who cursed at parking attendants. Both events have been marked as “FIRE victories,” as neither individual was punished for constitutionally protected speech.


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