Victory for Free Speech on Campus: Federal Court Strikes Down Gun Rights Protest Restrictions at Tarrant County College

By on March 16, 2010

FORT WORTH, Texas, March 16, 2010Late yesterday, in a striking victory for the First Amendment on campus, a federal district court in Texas ruled that a number of restrictions on students’ speech at Tarrant County College (TCC) are unconstitutional. In his decision, U.S. District Judge Terry R. Means found that TCC’s reliance on a policy prohibiting “disruptive activities” to restrict students Clayton Smith and John Schwertz from holding an “empty holster” protest violated the First Amendment. Smith and Schwertz had turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.

“Yesterday’s ruling is just the latest in an unbroken string of legal victories, dating back more than twenty years, over unconstitutional campus speech codes,” FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley said. “FIRE welcomes the district court’s decision as yet another clear confirmation that restrictions on protected speechespecially core political speechsimply will not stand in a court of law.”

In addition to ruling that students are entitled to protest by wearing empty holsters in classrooms, hallways, and public areas of campus, Judge Means ruled that TCC’s sweeping prohibition on “cosponsorship,” which forbade students and faculty from holding campus events in association with any “off-campus person or organization,” prevented TCC students “from speaking on campus on issues of any social importance” and was therefore “overly broad” and “unconstitutional on its face.” Smith’s and Schwertz’s protest was designed to coincide with the efforts of a national pro-concealed carry organization, Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC).

The lawsuit was filed on November 4, 2009, by Fort Worth attorney Karin Cagle in cooperation with FIRE and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas (ACLU-TX). On November 6, 2009, Judge Means issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting TCC from quarantining protected speech to the school’s tiny “free speech zone,” holding that continued operation of the free speech zone would result in “immediate and irreparable injury” to students’ free speech rights. At that point, TCC already had prohibited students from participating in SCCC empty holster protests for two years in a row.

In December, following the district court’s order, TCC voluntarily revised several policies challenged by the lawsuit, including the free speech zone policy, but TCC also introduced the unconstitutional ban on cosponsorship. The students’ lawsuit was amended to challenge this new policy and to ask the court to invalidate the former free speech zone policy because TCC otherwise would be able to reinstate it following the conclusion of the lawsuit. Judge Means struck down the cosponsorship ban, stating that “the Court cannot imagine how the provision could have been written more broadly.”

Judge Means also held that the challenge to the free speech zone was moot because there was no indication that TCC would revert to the discredited policy.

“Even before yesterday’s ruling, TCC’s free speech zone had fallen due to FIRE’s efforts. Now, Judge Means has struck down TCC’s latest attempt to restrict free speech on campus,” FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley said. “Because Smith and Schwertz took a stand to defend their constitutional right to free expression on campus, all TCC students now enjoy the robust First Amendment rights to which they are legally entitled.”

Much more information on the case, including FIRE’s pre-litigation efforts to remedy the situation, can be found at FIRE’s website and the ACLU-TX website.

FIRE has defeated free speech zones similar to TCC’s on campuses across the nation, including the University of North Carolina at GreensboroWest Virginia UniversityUniversity of Nevada at RenoCitrus College in California, and Texas Tech University. FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Projectan initiative working to dismantle unconstitutional speech codes on public university campuseshas won crucial victories at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, Texas Tech University, the State University of New York at Brockport, Citrus College in California, San Francisco State University and the California State University System, and now Tarrant County College.

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

Schools: Tarrant County College