College threatens students for even discussing guns

October 26, 2008

The Young Conservatives of Texas branch at the Houston-area Lone Star College-Tomball has been censored and threatened with campus-wide de-recognition for passing out a humorous pamphlet with gun jokes at a campus fair.

The dispute is being addressed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, which has written college officials reminding them of the college’s constitutional obligation to respect the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and to acknowledge the flyer’s contents are protected speech.

“Distributing a joke-filled top-ten list at a student activities fair is a creative way for a student group to educate its peers about itself,” said Greg Lukianoff, the president of FIRE.

The case developed at the school‘s recent “club rush” when the Young Conservatives started handing out their list of “Top Ten Gun Safety Tips.”

The tongue-in-cheek recommendations included:

  • Always keep your gun pointed in a safe direction, such as at a hippy or a communist.
  • No matter how responsible he seems, never give your gun to a monkey.
  • Don’t load your gun unless you are ready to shoot something or are just feeling generally angry.
  • If your gun misfires, never look down the barrel to inspect it.
  • Never us[e] your gun to pistol whip someone. That could mar the finish.
  • No matter how excited you are about buying your first gun, do not run around yelling “I have a gun! I have a gun!”

The flyer then invited students to an informational meeting the following week.

Robert Comer, the chairman for the student group, said Shannon Marino, the school’s program manager for student activities, told him the flyer was inappropriate and confiscated his copies. When Comer appealed to E. Edward Albracht, the dean of student development, he ruled the flyer was inappropriate and cited the shootings at Virginia Tech.

Then, a few days later, Marino warned Comer the school’s legal department would review the flyers and the school might order the campuse YCT branch disbanded or placed on probation.

“Lone Star should be ashamed of invoking the tragedy of Virginia Tech in an attempt to justify the censorship of any mention of firearms at Lone Star. Doing so is not only an affront to constitutional rights – it trivializes the experiences of the true victims of gun violence,” Lukianoff said.

The college, through General Counsel Brian Nelson, said, “the tragedy of Virginia Tech cannot be underestimated (sic) when it comes to speech relating to firearms – however ‘satirical and humorous’ the speech may be perceived by some.”

“The mention of firearms and weapons on colleges campuses – and in specific LSCS – Tomball – brings fear and concern to students, faculty and staff – which translates into a ‘material interference with the operation of the school or the rights of others,’” Nelson wrote.

Adam Kissel, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, argued the First Amendment “does not make an exception for unreasonable hysteria over a humorous firearms-related top-ten list.”

“It is outrageous that the Young Conservatives of Texas are apparently still under investigation more than a month after distributing their flyer,” he said. “When speech is so obviously protected by the Constitution, there is simply nothing to investigate and not a single reason to censor.”

FIRE noted, “Parody and satire, even when they include ‘offensive’ language and situations, are forms of political speech that are at the core of our country’s honored traditions. They exist precisely to challenge, to amuse, to provoke – and, indeed, to offend.”

The organization continued, “When a university investigates clearly protected speech, it produces a chilling effect on freedom of expression. FIRE requests that the investigation and threats against YCT immediately cease and that Tomball notify YCT that it recognizes that the flyer is protected speech.”

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Schools: Lone Star College-Tomball Cases: Lone Star College: Student Group Threatened with Probation and Derecognition for Posting Flyer