Student says college violated rights by banning protest

May 23, 2008

A college violated some students’ constitutional rights by not allowing them to wear empty gun holsters as part of a nationwide protest over campuses’ ban on concealed weapons, a student claims.

Brett Poulos said that although he asked permission before last month’s demonstration, a Tarrant County College official said empty holsters could not be worn anywhere on campus. Poulos said he was told students could protest only in the “free-speech zone”a 12-by-12-foot concrete platform.

“It was really upsetting to me because they wouldn’t provide me a reason,” said Poulos, 20, of Arlington. “And I’ve never seen anyone protest there. I’ve seen people pass out flyers and demonstrate on campus. Mine happens to be a protest over firearms, and I guess he disagreed with it personally.”

Of the 600 campuses where thousands of students wore empty holsters to classes April 21-25, Tarrant County College was apparently the only one that wouldn’t allow it, according to Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, a nationwide group.

Juan Garcia, vice president for student development for the two-year college, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he denied Poulos’ request because “from a distance, you can’t tell if a holster is empty or not.”

Poulos, a junior who transferred to Tarrant County College in January, said he was afraid of getting expelled after Garcia said he would take action if students disregarded his ban. So Poulos ended up getting permission to hand out fliers about the Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, which he did from the concrete platform.

Robert L. Shibley, vice president for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said wearing empty holsters is similar to students donning black arm bands to protest the Vietnam War, a right that the Supreme Court upheld in 1969.

“It’s important because it’s a matter of symbolic speech,” Shibley said.

He also said several campus free-speech zones had been ruled unconstitutional because they limited free speech, including Texas Tech University’s 20-foot diameter gazebo that was the designated zone for 28,000 students.

Shibley, whose group was contacted by Poulos, said Tarrant County College has not responded to his letter asking officials to allow students to do the empty-holster protest and to get rid of the free-speech zone.

Students for Concealed Carry on Campus was founded by a University of North Texas student just after last year’s Virginia Tech tragedy in which a student gunman killed two people in a dormitory, then killed 30 others more than two hours later in a classroom.

The national nonpartisan organization quickly grew through the online student-networking site Facebook. It now has 30,000 membersmostly studentswho advocate for colleges to allow students and professors to carry guns if they already have concealed-weapons permits.

About 125 colleges and universities participated in the group’s first empty holster demonstration one week in October, said group spokeswoman Katie Kasprzak, a student at Texas State University.

Although every state but Illinois and Wisconsin allows residents some form of concealed handgun carrying rights, many states prohibit license-holders from taking weapons to school campuses. In states where the universities decide, they almost always ban it. Utah is the only state that expressly allows students to carry concealed weapons on campus.

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