Yesterday afternoon, FIRE closed the book on one of its most talked-about cases as the student government of the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) in Pittsburgh finally approved a chapter of the national concealed firearms advocacy group Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC). The approval ends a saga that began last April when CCAC administrators told student Christine Brashier that such a group would never be allowed on campus and threatened her with disciplinary action for her attempts to inform her fellow students about the cause. Brashier turned to FIRE for help, and after we procured for her the assistance of a FIRE Legal Network attorney, CCAC agreed to approve her group on a viewpoint neutral basis. By approving the group yesterday, CCAC has fulfilled this agreement. FIRE will continue to monitor the situation, of course, to ensure that the group continues to be treated fairly and that CCAC has wholly abandoned its attempts at censorship.
FIRE’s case page has all the details about the case, including our victory press release from last year, so I won’t reiterate the sordid details of CCAC’s crackdown on protected speech here. Yet some aspects of this situation are worth commenting upon before Christine’s ordeal enters FIRE’s extensive case archives.
Those who follow FIRE know that we don’t have a position on concealed carry of firearms on campus, just as we don’t have a position on abortion, affirmative action, or any number of hot-button political issues. We do, however, strongly believe that our nation’s campuses are not only an important place for debate on these topics to take place, but one of the most important places for this sort of debate.
Many commentators asked, "Can’t they stop discussion about this issue, since it makes people really uncomfortable?" In response, I have personally pointed out that the debate about concealed firearms on campus is going to take place somewhere, such as in state legislatures, and that it would be beyond absurd if it couldn’t also take place in the very communities that will be required to live with whatever decisions are made about guns on campus. After all, instituting a policy of preventing groups of citizens from participating in debate and decision-making about controversial issues that affect them doesn’t exactly have a great track record. If guns are to be carried on campus, or alternatively banned from campus, it stands to reason that one would want to consult the students about it, as concerns for their safety form the foundation for both sides of the argument.
It’s also worth pointing out for the umpteenth time that college students are adults (the vast majority are, anyway) who are able to vote and therefore deserve the ability to fully discuss the issues that come up in a representative democracy like ours. This actually goes double at community colleges, which typically have a much greater diversity of ages among their students. CCAC’s original position on this issue was that it simply may not be discussed on campus. This blanket prohibition would have denied, for example, a 45-year old student who retired after 20 years on the Pittsburgh police force the right to discuss the merits or drawbacks of concealed firearms. This type of person is far from unusual on a community college campus, yet CCAC’s reflexive position was to treat a person like this the same way a high school would treat a 14-year-old who lived with his parents.
The profound value we ascribe to the traditional American ideals of freedom of expression, association, press, religion, and conscience is not accidental. Rather, our respect for these rights is the product of a great deal of philosophical inquiry and a great deal of trial and error. This doesn’t mean that every institution is required to adhere to them (as a public institution, CCAC actually is required to do so, but private colleges are not), but it does mean that if these ideals are to be ignored, it’s only prudent for administrators to think long and hard about why and whether their wisdom is to be preferred over that of our nation’s founders. FIRE hopes that our year-long engagement with CCAC has brought this question to the forefront of its administrators’ minds—and maybe the minds of administrators at other colleges as well.