After Two Years of Censorship, Lawsuit Challenges TCC’s Free Speech Zone

By November 5, 2009

On Tuesday, in cooperation with FIRE and the ACLU of Texas, students Clayton Smith and John Schwertz, Jr., at Fort Worth’s Tarrant County College filed a lawsuit in federal district court in the Northern District of Texas challenging the constitutionality of TCC’s tiny free speech zone. Yesterday, Smith and Schwertz filed a motion requesting a temporary restraining order to prohibit TCC from (once again) preventing members of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC) from holding an "empty holster" protest planned for November 9-13.

One thing’s for sure: TCC can’t say it wasn’t warned. After all, TCC has been censoring SCCC protests on campus for nearly two years nowand for just as long, FIRE has been telling administrators precisely how unconstitutional that censorship is. 

FIRE first wrote TCC in April 2008, after TCC student and SCCC member Brett Poulos was told by TCC administrators that he and his fellow protesters were forbidden from wearing empty holsters anywhere on TCC’s South Campus, even in the designated free speech zone. TCC Vice President for Student Development Juan Garcia threatened Brett with punishment if he went so far as to wear a T-shirt advocating "violence" or displaying "offensive" material. Brett contacted us for help, and we gathered national media attention to TCC’s censorship. The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression even awarded TCC a 2009 Jefferson Muzzle, given to the country’s worst censors. 

But despite all the negative press, TCC didn’t budge. In April 2009, the school was at it again, censoring another SCCC protest, this time led by Clayton. This time, not only did TCC tell Clayton he wasn’t allowed to wear an empty holster, but administrators also told him that he was forbidden to hand out flyers anywhere on campus. Like Brett, Clayton contacted FIRE for helpand this time, we knew that the only way to end TCC’s repeated offenses against free speech on campus was a lawsuit. Working with the ACLU of Texas, we connected Clayton and John with cooperating Fort Worth attorney Karin Cagle, and now TCC will have to answer for its unconstitutional actions in court. 

Clayton’s and John’s suit asks the court to strike down TCC’s free speech zone permanently and also seeks a temporary restraining order so that next week’s empty holster protest can take place free of administrative censorship. Interested readers can check out the complaint, the brief in support of our motion for a temporary restraining order, the motion itself, my declaration in support of the motion, Clayton’s declaration, John’s declaration, and a declaration from Daniel Crocker, SCCC’s Director for the Southwest Region and Campus Freedom Network member. 

To me, the most striking aspect of TCC’s persistent censorship is how stubborn the school has been in the face of multiple warnings. Consider this: TCC is located in the same jurisdiction as Texas Tech University, which means that FIRE’s landmark 2004 victory in Roberts v. Haragan, 346 F. Supp. 2d 853 (N.D.Tex. 2004) is fully binding. Longtime FIRE supporters will remember Roberts, in which a district court judge found Texas Tech’s "free speech gazebo" to be in violation of the First Amendment, as one of our proudest victories. The question is: Why didn’t TCC’s lawyer consider Roberts? FIRE certainly reminded the school about itand more than once. 

For further illustration, contrast TCC’s actions with those of the University of North Texas, which just voluntarily dismantled its free speech zone under pressure from FIRE late last month. Unlike TCC, UNT recognized that it was trying to defend the indefensible, and, to the school’s credit, it saved itself (and taxpayers) a lot of time and money by reforming its illiberal and unconstitutional policy before a lawsuit. TCC, on the other hand, has chosen to do things the hard way. 

I know I speak for all of us here at FIRE when I commend Clayton and John for their courage in standing up for the First Amendment on campus, and in thanking the ACLU of Texas and Karin Cagle for their hard work in getting the suit filed. My FIRE colleagues and I will be discussing the case in further detail here on The Torch in the days to come, and of course, we’ll keep you posted of the suit’s progress here. 

Schools: Tarrant County College Cases: Tarrant County College Bans Symbolic ‘Empty Holster’ Protest