Texas Law Launches First Amendment Center

The University of Texas School of Law is opening the Bech-Loughlin First Amendment Center, dedicated to advancing discussion, education, and scholarship on the First Amendment.

Among the center’s main projects will be a new experiential education opportunity, the Law and Religion Clinic. It is the first clinic at a university in the state dedicated to representing clients in cases that involve challenges to their religious liberty, and will allow students to learn about the relationship between the First Amendment and religion.

“We live in times when measured conversation between people with different viewpoints has often become difficult — sometimes even scarce,” said Ward Farnsworth, dean of the School of Law. “As the flagship public law school in a diverse state, I believe it’s important for us to show commitment and leadership on this issue.”

Students will serve as advocates for clients who would otherwise be unlikely to find representation. These include individuals denied benefits or opportunities because of their religious exercise or beliefs, religious institutions discriminated against in municipal land-use decisions, and individuals seeking to practice the tenets of their religion in restrictive environments, such as prison and educational settings.

“At a moment where our nation is divided on so many issues, our constitutional right to free speech is one of the most important tools we have to facilitate needed discussions, find common ground and continue making progress, together,” said UT Austin interim President Jay Hartzell. “The First Amendment Center will provide incredible experiential learning opportunities for UT law students while helping serve Texans in need of legal counsel and representation.”

The Center is named for Doug Bech ’70 and Samuel Loughlin ’98, who have partnered to pledge an $8 million gift to endow the Center’s activities and staff.

“Our First Freedoms of religion, speech, press and assembly are central to human flourishing, liberty and a healthy society in America and across the earth,” said Bech and Loughlin, in a joint statement. “It is best secured through a civil public square where all discussion is respected equally in accordance with our rule of law. We believe that this Center and Clinic will provide UT’s law students with the educational foundation to protect and embrace these vital constitutional rights for all persons.”

The Director of the new Center is Clinical Professor Steven T. Collis, who will also be the founding director of the Law and Religion Clinic. Before joining Texas Law, Prof. Collis was the Olin-Darling Research Fellow in the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School and, before that, an equity partner at Holland & Hart LLP, where he was the chair of the firm’s nationwide religious institutions and First Amendment practice group and a member of the firm’s complex civil litigation and employment practice groups. He speaks and publishes widely on religious liberty law and other First Amendment topics.

“I am thrilled to be joining The University of Texas and honored to become part of the School of Law’s incredible faculty,” said Prof. Collis. “I am passionate about teaching, research, and helping those who would otherwise struggle to find legal representation. Through the Clinic and Center, I have the unique privilege of doing all three. The Clinic will give students pro bono casework in which to develop core skills, deep legal understanding, and a foundation of confidence to be great advocates for real clients with real problems. The Center will contribute to the scholarly dialogue regarding the freedoms found in the First Amendment.”

“Both will provide a wonderful, formative opportunity for all students, no matter their background or long-term career goals.”

The Center opens immediately, while the Clinic will be offered to students for the Spring 2021 semester.