Three University of Texas at Austin professors filed a lawsuit claiming that letting people carry firearms on their campus would have a chilling effect on speech. Last week, District Judge Lee Yeakel dismissed the suit claiming the professors could present "no concrete evidence to substantiate their fears" and that their fears rest on "mere conjecture." Although it's certainly refreshing to see professors using First Amendment justifications with such vigor, it's even better that Yeakel dismissed their ludicrous arguments and protected campus carry.
In 2015, the Texas legislature strengthened their commitment to gun rights at public universities. Senate Bill 11, which came into effect in August 2016, permitted campus concealed carry in campus buildings within reasonable guidelines. Those guidelines vary from school to school. At UT Austin, guns must stay out of sight, and individuals professors can choose to make "gun-free zones" in their offices, provided they post their rules clearly.
Professors Jennifer Lynn Glass (sociology), Lisa Moore (English), and Mia Carter (English) banded together and filed a lawsuit that sought to overturn the new law. One professor argued that the "possibility of the presence of concealed weapons in a classroom impedes my and other professors' ability to create a daring, intellectually active, mutually supportive, and engaged community of thinkers." Their reasoning centered around the idea that students will be unable to speak freely––a First Amendment argument––in an environment where other students are armed.
But this logic posits that students will pull guns on each other when they hear ideas they disagree with––an unlikely outcome. Even for controversial topics like abortion and, ironically, gun rights, it would be beyond the scope of reason to expect that a classroom conversation would become so heated that a student's life would be threatened.
Judge Yeakel drew on the reasoning in the 1972 free speech case Laird v. Tatum, which said that "Allegations of a subjective 'chill' are not an adequate substitute for a claim of specific present objective harm or a threat of specific future harm."
Yeakel then used the precedent of Laird, and lack of specific evidence, as grounds for dismissal: "Here, Plaintiffs ask the court to find standing based on their self-imposed censoring of classroom discussions caused by their fear of the possibility of illegal activity by persons not joined in this lawsuit. Plaintiffs present no concrete evidence to substantiate their fears…" He's right that there's no evidence that this law has caused harm in the way they claim. Unfortunately, Yeakel only addressed a small part of the professors' argument––the speech-related points. They also brought up issues with equal protection and the law's vagueness, so it's likely that this issue won't be fully laid to rest.
On one hand, it's good that college professors are recognizing the value of creating environments for free speech to thrive in. On the other, this seems like a thinly veiled political move, and it's unlikely that opponents of campus carry laws will be quelled by this lawsuit's dismissal. Hopefully these professors remain committed to the First Amendment principles they hold so dear whenever they're threatened in a classroom environment. They're certainly right about one thing: exchanging ideas freely is the whole damn point of college.
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