Too Often, First Amendment Protections Denied to Second Amendment Speech

By March 10, 2009

The First Amendment protects core political speechand, as should be obvious, that protection extends to speech regarding the Second Amendment. This means that students at public universities and private universities that promise the right to free expression on campus must be free to engage in unfettered discussion of the merits of federal, state and local gun policy in the same way that they are free to discuss, say, agricultural subsidies, diplomatic relations with Cuba, or last night’s Daily Show.

But an unfortunate consequence of the tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University is that students are increasingly facing punishment or investigation for engaging in any kind of gun-related speech. While FIRE of course understands the paramount importance of protecting students on campus, we have too often seen abuses of speech rights justified by weak allusions to these tragedies, as if advocating for or against gun rights on campus was an inherently dangerous act worthy of official reprimand. This is an absurd and untenable outcome.

FIRE has explored just how deeply regrettable this gun-speech hysteria is in previous writings. For example, Greg wrote an article for The Huffington Post entitled "What Can The Virginia Tech Tragedy Do For Me?", in which he concluded that "the simple fact is that some administrators have been using the campus shootings of the past two years as an excuse to justify cracking down on speech they don’t like." Similarly, here on The Torch, Adam discussed how a recent court order in student Hayden Barnes’ ongoing federal civil rights lawsuit against Valdosta State University should remind colleges that "simply invoking Virginia Tech or other incidents of severe violence on college campuses does not mean that a school can get away with declaring the most minor (or in this case nonexistent) references to violence some kind of actionable threat to campus security." Torch readers will remember that VSU cited the tragedy at Virginia Tech to justify expelling Barnes for a "threatening" collage he posted on Facebook.com.

But in light of Robert’s scheduled appearance tonight on CNN, it’s useful to review just how many incidents of overreaction to gun-related speech we’ve seen on the part of school administrators in the past several years. It’s a long and shameful list:

  • At Central Connecticut State University, a student gave a presentation for his speech class about the safety value of concealed weapons on campus. His professor called the police, who subsequently interrogated him about where he was storing the guns that were registered under his name. This incident has already garnered national media attentionit was featured on the front page of FoxNews.com last weekand will be the focus of Robert’s appearance on Lou Dobbs Tonight.   
  • At Tarrant County College in Texas, a student chapter of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus was prohibited from wearing empty gun holsters to protest policies that forbid concealed carry on campus. In addition, the group was only allowed to protest (still without holsters) in the school’s tiny and restrictive free speech zone. An administrator said that the empty holsters were too threatening for other students to see.  
  • At Colorado College, two male students were found responsible for sexually-related "violence" after they put up posters making fun of a feminist newsletter. Because the posters, which also parodied "guy stuff," made references to chainsaws and the range of a sniper rifle, administrators claimed that feminists on campus became afraid for their lives. The administrator who punished the students wrote, "I recognize that your intent in posting your publication was not to threaten but to parody. However, in the climate in which we find ourselves today, violenceor implied violenceof any kind cannot be tolerated on a college campus." Because of this miscarriage of justice, Colorado College is now on FIRE’s Red Alert list, reserved for the worst-of-the-worst when it comes to liberty on campus.
  • At Lone Star College near Houston, the Young Conservatives of Texas distributed a humorous flyer listing "Top Ten Gun Safety Tips" at the school’s "club rush." They were threatened with probation and derecognition, and the flyer was censored. The school’s general counsel invoked the specter of the Virginia Tech shootings, suggesting that even a "mention of firearms and weapons" is inherently a "material interference" with the school’s operations.
  • Yale attempted a similar maneuver after the Virginia Tech shootings, banning the use of any realistic-looking weapons in theatrical productions at the school. Under public pressure, Yale backed away somewhat from its original overreaction but still required audiences to be "notified in advance of the use of fake guns, swords and knives."
  • According to USA Today, a professor at Emmanuel College in Boston was fired "after leading a classroom discussion about the Virginia Tech shootings in which he pointed a marker at some students and said ‘pow.’" According to the professor, the five-minute demonstration included a discussion of gun control, whether to respond to violence with violence, and the public’s "celebration of victimhood."

As always, FIRE will continue to monitor this unfortunate trend and to defend the rights of students and faculty to engage in fully protected speech on campuseven if that speech involves fake guns, empty holsters, or advocating for the right to carry concealed weapons on campus.

Schools: Lone Star College-Tomball Tarrant County College Central Connecticut State University Yale University Colorado College