Students File Lawsuit Challenging ‘Free Speech Zone’ After Repeated Censorship of Pro-Gun ‘Empty Holster’ Protest

November 5, 2009

FORT WORTH, Texas, November 5, 2009—Tarrant County College (TCC) students Clayton Smith and John Schwertz filed suit in federal district court late Tuesday against TCC. The students are seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent TCC from quarantining protected speech to the school’s tiny “free speech zone” when they participate in a national “empty holster” protest coordinated by Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC) that is scheduled for November 9-13. TCC has prohibited students from participating in identical symbolic protests twice in the past two years. The suit was filed by Fort Worth attorney Karin Cagle in cooperation with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas.

“For far too long, Tarrant County College has flouted the First Amendment and prevented its students from engaging in core political speech on campus anywhere outside of its so-called free speech zone,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “By restricting campus speech to this tiny ‘free speech zone,’ TCC has stifled students and ignored its legal obligation to ensure that speech remains free on campus. After failing to heed repeated warnings from FIRE, TCC now must answer for its brazen disregard for the Constitution in federal court.”

The suit, filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Fort Worth Division, asks the court to ensure that Smith and Schwertz are allowed to fully participate in the upcoming protests. As members of SCCC, a national organization that “supports the legalization of concealed carry by licensed individuals on college campuses,” Schwertz and Smith seek to distribute flyers in public areas on TCC’s campus and to wear empty holsters. The empty holsters would signify opposition to state laws and school policies denying concealed handgun license holders the right to carry concealed handguns on college campuses. The suit also asks the court to enjoin TCC’s requirement that students wishing to use the free speech zone submit a form requesting permission at least 24 hours in advance of the planned expressive activity.

In the past two years, TCC twice prohibited students from participating in the SCCC protest on campus. In March 2008, TCC student Brett Poulos e-mailed TCC South Campus President Ernest L. Thomas to describe the empty holster protest. In an April 10 response, Juan Garcia, Vice President for Student Development, “granted” Poulos’ request to stage a protest on the South Campus, but Garcia changed the fundamental nature of the protest by prohibiting the protesters from wearing empty holsters anywhere on the South Campus, even in the designated free speech zone. The South Campus free speech zone, according to Poulos, is an elevated, circular concrete platform about 12 feet across. In a later meeting, Garcia told Poulos that TCC would take adverse action if SCCC members wore empty holsters anywhere, strayed beyond the school’s free speech zone during their holster-less protest, or even wore T-shirts advocating “violence” or displaying “offensive” material. Poulos came to FIRE for help.

FIRE wrote to President Thomas on April 24, 2008, explaining that TCC’s free speech zone represented a serious threat to liberty on campus and that FIRE has defeated similar free speech zones on campuses across the nation, including the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, West Virginia University, University of Nevada at Reno, Citrus College in California, and Texas Tech University. A TCC administrator responded on May 20, 2008, informing FIRE that the university would not reverse its decision. Poulos’ protest did not take place.

Similarly, on April 10, 2009, Clayton Smith, one of the current student-plaintiffs, e-mailed TCC administrators to inform the college of his intent to hold an “empty holster protest” on TCC’s Northeast Campus in coordination with SCCC’s nationwide protests from April 20-24. On April 16, however, a TCC administrator e-mailed Smith, prohibiting Smith and other protesters from wearing empty gun holsters on campus, even in the free speech zone, not only during the protest but also at any other time. Smith was informed that students were not allowed to hand out flyers on campus. Like Poulos, Smith came to FIRE for help.

Working in conjunction with the ACLU of Texas, FIRE aided Smith in finding counsel. FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley filed a declaration with the court in support of the suit, detailing FIRE’s efforts at TCC and the college’s refusal to recognize the First Amendment rights of its students.

“Because of Clayton’s and John’s courage in the face of censorship, TCC’s unconstitutional free speech zone will be put to the test in federal court,” Creeley said. “Like so many free speech zones before it, FIRE is confident that TCC’s will fail when subjected to public and judicial scrutiny.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Will Creeley, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 212-582-3191 ; will@thefire.org