Gun-related Speech Cases
June 25, 2010
Tarrant County College (TCC) repeatedly violated the constitutional rights of student protesters who intended to participate in the national "Students for Concealed Carry on Campus" protest by wearing empty holsters. The protest, held on college campuses throughout the country, is part of an effort to promote "the legalization of concealed carry by licensed individuals on college campuses." Two years in a row, TCC students were told that they could not wear the holsters anywhere on campus and had to confine all protests to tiny "free speech zones," such as the approximately twelve-foot circle of concrete comprising the "free speech zone" on TCC's South Campus. TCC was the only public school in the country that banned the protest. Ultimately, with the help of FIRE and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the students filed a lawsuit to vindicate their rights and defeat TCC's unconstitutional policies and practices. They won a temporary restraining order in 2009, and TCC amended its policies but failed to properly protect constitutional rights. The plaintiffs amended their complaint, and the case went to a hearing in January 2010. In March 2010, the U.S. District Court upheld the students' right to wear empty holsters as part of their protest—even in classrooms—and ruled that a new TCC ban on "cosponsorship" of campus activities was unconstitutional.
A student who was trying to form a gun-rights group at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) in Pennsylvania was threatened with disciplinary action. Administrators banned Christine Brashier's informational pamphlets, ordered all copies of them destroyed, and decreed that further "academic misconduct" would not be tolerated. A dean reportedly told her, "You may want to discuss this topic but the college does not, and you cannot make us." After FIRE came to the student's aid, CCAC proffered post hoc rationalizations, stating that in order to avoid punishment the student must obtain the school's imprimatur before distributing her message, thus subjecting her pamphlets to unconstitutional prior restraint. After months of national media attention, Christine was finally allowed to distribute pamphlets about the group she was forming, and the college rescinded its unconstitutional policy demanding "prior written approval" for "personal contact with individuals or groups related to non-sponsored college material or events."
Two male students were found responsible for violating the school's "violence" policy for posting a flyer that parodied a flyer from the Feminist and Gender Studies program. Colorado College's "Feminist and Gender Studies Interns" had distributed a flyer called "The Monthly Rag," which included a reference to "male castration," an announcement about a lecture on "feminist porn," and an explanation of "packing" (pretending to have a phallus). As a parody of "The Monthly Rag," the two male students distributed a flyer called "The Monthly Bag" under the pseudonym "Coalition of Some Dudes." The flyer included references to "tough guy wisdom," "chainsaw etiquette," the shooting range of a sniper rifle, and a quotation about "female violence and abuse" of men from the website batteredmen.com. The college subjected them to an hours-long hearing and found them responsible because of their "juxtaposition of weaponry and sexuality" on their flyer. Disciplinary letters were placed in their official files.
Hamline University suspended a student after he sent an e-mail suggesting that the Virginia Tech massacre might have been stopped if students had been allowed to carry concealed weapons on campus. Student Troy Scheffler was required to undergo a mandatory "mental health evaluation" before being allowed to return to school. Scheffler was suspended without due process just two days after sending the e-mail.
The Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) were among a variety of student organizations distributing flyers at Lone Star College - Tomball during an event for student groups to recruit new members. YCT's flyer included a satirical list of "Top Ten Gun Safety Tips" including, "If your gun misfires, never look down the barrel to inspect it." Program Manager for Student Activities Shannon Marino reportedly told the YCT Chairman that the flyer was inappropriate and confiscated the flyers. Comer appealed to Dean of Student Development E. Edward Albracht, but Albracht also said the flyer was inappropriate and invoked the prior year's shootings at Virginia Tech. Marino informed Comer that the school's legal department would be reviewing YCT's flyers and that afterward, the school might disband YCT or put the group on probation for the year. FIRE contacted the Lone Star administration about its violations of YCT's rights. Brian S. Nelson, General Counsel for the Lone Star College System. replied that any "mention of firearms and weapons" is inherently a "material interference with the operation of the school or the rights of others" because such language "brings fear and concern to students, faculty and staff." Nevertheless, YCT was allowed to remain a student organization without any disciplinary consequences.
These are just some of the many cases where colleges and universities have restricted speech about guns. Here are more:
- At Central Connecticut State University, a student gave a presentation for his speech class about the safety value of concealed weapons on campus. His professor called the police, who subsequently interrogated him about where he was storing the guns that were registered under his name. This incident garnered national media attention, being featured on the front page of FoxNews.com, and on Lou Dobbs Tonight, where FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley explained how irrational it usually is to restrict gun-related speech.
- Arkansas Tech University canceled a student production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins "out of respect for the families of those victims of the tragedies at Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech, and from an abundance of caution." At the dress rehearsal, wooden stage guns were required to be cut in half prior to the event and not used. Eventually, after national media attention and campus protests, the production was allowed to continue, albeit with added security.
- Yale University attempted a similar maneuver after the Virginia Tech shootings, banning the use of any realistic-looking weapons in theatrical productions at the school. Under public pressure, Yale backed away somewhat from its original overreaction but still required audiences to be "notified in advance of the use of fake guns, swords and knives."
- According to USA Today, a professor at Emmanuel College in Boston was fired "after leading a classroom discussion about the Virginia Tech shootings in which he pointed a marker at some students and said 'pow.'" According to the professor, the five-minute demonstration included a discussion of gun control, whether to respond to violence with violence, and the public's "celebration of victimhood."