The stifling of parody on college campuses in recent years is a sad tale of censorship, oversensitivity, and overreaction in the wake of actual incidents of violence. The latest case, as we document in today’s press release, occurred over nothing worse—be careful, and don’t be alarmed!—than a Letterman-style “top ten” list of “Gun Safety Tips.” The official student organization that published this list on a recruiting flyer, Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) at Lone Star College–Tomball, had its flyers confiscated during Lone Star College–Tomball’s “club rush,” and shortly afterward the group was told that it was under investigation and probably would be suspended—if not derecognized altogether.
I must point out the context here. This was at the college’s club rush, when student groups attempt to recruit new members. There was no violence of any kind, let alone gun violence, anywhere. Nor was there any threat of violence. Nor was there any reasonable expectation that a single person would fear gun violence because of a jocular top-ten list.
Nevertheless, college officials, including the college’s general counsel, have invoked the specter of the Virginia Tech shootings in seeking to justify their censorship. The general counsel even suggested that any “mention of firearms and weapons” is inherently a “material interference” with the school’s operations. As FIRE’s president, Greg Lukianoff, said, “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.”
Let’s review the facts to illustrate precisely how inappropriate Lone Star’s response has been. On September 8, YCT was distributing flyers, along with other student organizations, during “club rush.” YCT’s flyers featured these “Top Ten Gun Safety Tips”:
10. Always keep your gun pointed in a safe direction, such as at a Hippy or a Communist.
9. Dumb children might get a hold of your guns and shoot each other. If your children are dumb, put them up for adoption to protect your guns.
8. No matter how responsible he seems, never give your gun to a monkey[.]
7. If guns make you nervous, drink a bottle of whiskey before heading to the range[.]
6. While unholstering your weapon, it’s customary to say “Excuse me while I whip this out.”
5. Don’t load your gun unless you are ready to shoot something or are just feeling generally angry.
4. If your gun misfires, never look down the barrel to inspect it.
3. Never us[e] your gun to pistol whip someone. That could mar the finish.
2. No matter how excited you are about buying your first gun, do not run around yelling “I have a gun! I have a gun!”
1. And the most important rule of gun safety: Don’t piss me off.
According to YCT Chairman Robert Comer, Program Manager for Student Activities Shannon Marino told him that the flyer was inappropriate and confiscated the flyers. Comer appealed to Dean of Student Development E. Edward Albracht, but Albracht also said the flyer was inappropriate and invoked last year’s shootings at Virginia Tech. In response, Comer made new flyers without the “Top Ten” theme and distributed them for the remainder of the club rush.
The college’s efforts to censor YCT’s expression did not end there. On September 11, Marino informed Comer that the school’s legal department would be reviewing the flyers and that afterward, the school might disband YCT or put the group on probation for the year—simply because of the recruitment flyer.
FIRE wrote Lone Star College–Tomball President Raymond Hawkins on September 26, reminding him of the college’s constitutional obligation not to subject YCT to prosecution and censorship. FIRE noted that as a public college, Lone Star College–Tomball is required to respect the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and to acknowledge that the flyer’s contents constitute protected speech. FIRE asked President Hawkins to respond by October 10.
On October 14, FIRE received an e-mail from Brian S. Nelson, General Counsel for the Lone Star College System. Nelson stated that any “mention of firearms and weapons” is inherently a “material interference with the operation of the school or the rights of others” because such language “brings fear and concern to students, faculty and staff.” Nelson also stated that “the tragedy of Virginia Tech cannot be underestimated when it comes to speech relating to firearms—however ‘satirical and humorous’ the speech may be perceived by some.”
But let’s be clear: The First Amendment makes absolutely no 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. When speech is so obviously protected by the Constitution, there is simply nothing to investigate and not a single reason to censor.