Tarrant County College Bans Symbolic ‘Empty Holster’ Protest; Banishes Students with Dissenting Opinions to Small Free Speech Zone

May 22, 2008

FORT WORTH, Texas, May 22, 2008In a dramatic blow to freedom of expression, Tarrant County College (TCC) has prohibited its students from wearing empty gun holsters to protest policies that forbid students with concealed carry licenses from carrying concealed handguns on campus. A TCC administrator told interested students that they could not wear the holsters and could only conduct a protest in the school’s tiny and restrictive free speech zone. TCC student and protest organizer Brett Poulos has turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.

"TCC has cast aside decades-old Supreme Court precedent strongly protecting symbolic expression by refusing to recognize its students’ right to wear empty holsters to make their point," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "The students were using the empty holsters to protest policies that they believe render students defenseless. They have every right to engage in this symbolic protest, and TCC’s cynical attempt to ban dissenting views is both shameful and transparent."

On March 28, 2008, TCC student Brett Poulos e-mailed TCC South Campus President Ernest L. Thomas to describe an event he was organizing called an "Empty Holster Protest." Poulos had collaborated with Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC), a national organization that "supports the legalization of concealed carry by licensed individuals on college campuses." SCCC promoted a coordinated national protest for April 2008 in which students would peacefully attend class and perform other daily tasks while wearing empty holsters to signify opposition to state laws and school policies denying concealed handgun license holders the same rights on college campuses that they are granted in most other places.

In an April 10 response, Juan Garcia, Vice President for Student Development, "granted" Poulos’s request to stage a protest on the South Campus, but changed the fundamental nature of the protest by banning the protesters from wearing empty holsters anywhere on the South Campus, including 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.

Poulos met with Garcia on April 18 and was told that TCC would take adverse action if SCCC members wore empty holsters anywhere, strayed beyond the campus’s free speech zone during their holster-less protest, or even wore t-shirts advocating "violence" or displaying "offensive" material.

Poulos contacted FIRE, which wrote to President Thomas on April 24, 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.

"The fact that the school banished the students to a free speech zone for engaging in protected expression only makes this case worse," FIRE Vice President Robert L. Shibley said. "After all, aren’t our colleges and universities supposed to be the free speech zone for our entire society?"

FIRE also clearly stated that wearing an empty holster is a constitutionally protected act of symbolic expression analogous to the black armbands worn by students protesting the Vietnam War, which were explicitly protected by the Supreme Court in the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. FIRE also pointed out that TCC’s free speech zone is "incompatible with a free society and stands in stark opposition to central ideals of higher education," because it limits speech to a small fraction of campus, instead of allowing open discourse and inquiry on all areas of campus.

TCC has repeatedly told FIRE it would respond to FIRE’s letter, but almost a month after FIRE’s letter was sent, neither FIRE nor Poulos has received a response. FIRE asked that Poulos be immediately notified that he and his fellow protestors can exercise their constitutional right to peacefully assemble and protest.

"TCC doesn’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to banning this form of protest," Shibley said. "It does not matter if TCC administrators banned the protest because they dislike seeing students wearing holsters or simply because they don’t like criticism of their policiesthe First Amendment denies them the power to ban clearly protected political expression."

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 http://www.thefire.org/.

CONTACT:
Robert L. Shibley, Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; robert@thefire.org
Ernest L. Thomas, South Campus President, Tarrant County College: 817-515-4501; el.thomas@tccd.edu
Juan Garcia, Vice President for Student Development, Tarrant County College: 817-515-4504; juan.garcia@tccd.edu