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UT-Austin can’t call its new think tank The Liberty Institute. Another group already owns the rights to the name.

By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune

UT-Austin can’t call its new think tank The Liberty Institute. Another group already owns the rights to the name.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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For the past five months, University of Texas at Austin leaders have repeatedly stated that they have not yet officially chosen a name for a new teaching and research center publicly referred to by state leaders, and in state and university system documents, as The Liberty Institute.

One possible reason: Another Texas group has already trademarked the name.

First Liberty Institute, a Christian conservative legal organization in Plano that is known for representing clients in high-profile religious freedom cases, owns the trademark for the name “Liberty Institute,” according to Jeff Mateer, the group’s chief legal officer.

“We have raised our objections to UT’s counsel regarding any use of these marks,” Mateer said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “UT has communicated that it respects our concerns and has not adopted the term Liberty Institute or started to use that term in its operations.”

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records also show that First Liberty Institute owns the standard character mark for the phrase “Liberty Institute” as of 2019. A standard character mark is a trademark for a particular phrase or words, but it does not include a particular style design.

UT-Austin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In early January, the university said the media had dubbed the center the Liberty Institute, “but in fact the university has yet to determine its official name, mission, board and governance structure.” On Jan. 25, the university updated its website, stating the university initially used the name.

“It is too early, however, to say what its formal name would be, which depends on factors still to be worked out, including possible confusion with other similarly named entities,” a statement about the new center in the university’s website reads.

First Liberty Institute was known as the Liberty Institute from 2009 to 2016. It has represented clients in religious freedom cases, including a high school student who was banned from distributing candy cane pens with a religious message on them at a school party in Plano and the woman in Oregon who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple due to her religious beliefs against homosexuality.

The issue over naming rights is just the latest snafu surrounding the new center since the state allocated $6 million toward the program in the budget during the last legislative session. The UT Board of Regents also set aside another $6 million. The center has yet to officially launch.

Last summer, The Texas Tribune reported that the center was the brainchild of conservative UT-Austin donors who were working with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, University of Texas System leaders and UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell to launch it.

Two proposals obtained by the Tribune through Patrick’s office last summer described a center “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual liberty, limited government, private enterprise and free markets.”

While the proposals do not reflect the full breadth of discussion about the institute, they provide the most insight into the vision of some of the people involved in its creation. Those documents show the motivations of some UT-Austin donors — which include oil tycoon Bud Brigham and billionaire businessman Bob Rowling — who were working with Patrick on the center’s proposal were more political in nature.

“[A] growing proportion of our population lacks a basic understanding of the role liberty and private enterprise play in their well-being,” read one proposal. “Too many Americans, particularly younger students, maintain misconceptions about our political system and lack an even basic understanding of the moral, ethical, philosophical and historical foundations underpinning a free society.”

The center recently drew attention again on campus after Patrick tweeted last week stating that he would “not stand by and let looney Marxist UT professors poison the minds of young students with Critical Race Theory. We banned it in publicly funded K-12 and we will ban it in publicly funded higher ed. That’s why we created the Liberty Institute at UT.”

Patrick’s tweets came after the UT-Austin Faculty Council passed a nonbinding resolution reaffirming professors’ rights to teach about race, racism and critical race theory.

UT-Austin faculty said Patrick’s tweet suggesting lawmakers are behind the new center contradicts previous statements by university officials and called on university officials to clarify their earlier statements about the motivations and purpose of the center.

The proposals for the center also described a think tank that operated outside standard university hiring procedures. For instance, one proposal suggested the institute’s supporters should appoint the faculty and that the center should have a separate budget managed by a board of overseers.

UT-Austin leaders have described the new center in more politically muted terms, saying the center’s goal is to attract new faculty, and have reassured faculty in public meetings that any new professors would be hired within the proper university protocols.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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