Federal lawsuit filed against TCC's free-speech zones
November 5, 2009
by Bill Hanna
Two Tarrant County College students have filed a federal lawsuit against the school after being told that their protest of the school's policy banning concealed weapons on campus would be limited to designated areas.
Clayton Smith and John Schwertz Jr., who are students at TCC Northeast Campus in Hurst, wanted to wear empty holsters on campus next week, but were told that they could protest only in a designated free-speech zone.
The lawsuit, filed by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, wants the court to issue a temporary restraining order saying the free-speech zones, and portions of TCC's student handbook, are unconstitutional.
TCC denied a similar request in April by Smith and in 2008 by another student, Brent Poulos, on the South Campus. The student was told that he could protest in a designated free-speech zone but could not wear the holsters around campus.
ACLU attorney Lisa Graybill said TCC's free-speech zones are more restrictive than one that the courts struck down.
"What's remarkable is other colleges have tried to do this, and other colleges have ended up in litigation and lost," Graybill said. "It's clearly unconstitutional and an even more restrictive policy than the one Texas Tech used to try and restrict free speech to a gazebo."
TCC attorney Angela Robinson said the community college opposes the temporary restraining order.
"The college believes it has policies that respect and protect the rights of both students and faculty," said Robinson, who added that TCC must also "consider the safety and security" of those groups.
Smith, 20, a sophomore from Euless who graduated from L.D. Bell High School also attends the University of Texas at Arlington. An empty holster protest went off without incident at UT-Arlington in the spring, he said, and he does not understand why TCC sees an empty holster as a safety issue.
"They did say their responsibility is the students' safety, that they had concerns about an empty holster," Smith said. "I don't understand their safety concerns about a piece of leather or plastic."
Concerns about campus safety arose after the April 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in which a gunman killed 32 people and himself. The following year, students at 600 colleges nationwide wore empty holsters to protest the right to carry concealed weapons on campus. A concealed carry bill in the Texas Legislature that would have allowed licensed concealed handgun owners to carry weapons at Texas colleges and universities failed to pass last spring.
In March 2008, Poulos was denied his request to wear an empty holster and could protest only in a 12-by-12 free-speech zone.
"TCC's free speech zone is particularly egregious because it quarantines classically protected political speech to a tiny area," said Will Creeley, a spokesman for the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "Not only does it quarantine free speech, it requires advance notice. Finally, TCC should have known better."