GAINESVILLE, Fla., February 11, 2013—Prompted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Florida’s Santa Fe College acknowledged the importance of free speech last week by affirming a student organization’s right to symbolically protest in support of gun rights on campus. When the Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) chapter at Santa Fe College met with opposition to the protest from campus police, the group turned to FIRE for help.
“Campus police can be skittish when students use their First Amendment rights to advocate for controversial policies,” said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. “We’re glad that Santa Fe College quickly realized that the First Amendment protects all political opinions on campus regardless of viewpoint.”
On January 9, at a meeting of Santa Fe’s Student Government Senate, YAL representative Adam Edwards announced YAL’s intention to hold an empty holster protest on the Santa Fe campus. Empty holster protests, in which students wear empty gun holsters to symbolically protest laws prohibiting students from carrying concealed handguns on campus, have been held peacefully and without incident on dozens of campuses in recent years and constitute protected political expression. (FIRE takes no position on the carrying of concealed weapons on campus.)
Upon learning of YAL’s planned protest, Santa Fe College Director of Student Life Dan Rodkin requested that Edwards meet with him and college Chief of Police Ed Book to discuss the event. Edwards and YAL President Josh Norris reported that at a meeting with Book on January 24, Book signaled strong opposition to the protest, stating that he would draw his firearm on protest participants seen wearing empty holsters, despite YAL’s explanation that the protest would be peaceful and involve no handguns. (Book later denied making this statement.) Book also reportedly stated that he would consult with legal authorities in an attempt to block the event.
FIRE wrote to Santa Fe College President Jackson N. Sasser on January 30, making clear that YAL’s empty holster protest, as an act of symbolic political expression, was fully protected by the First Amendment. FIRE reminded Santa Fe of a recent courtroom loss for Tarrant County College (TCC) in Texas, which for two consecutive years refused to allow a similar empty holster protest and prohibited students from wearing the holsters in any campus location. TCC was sued by the censored students, and a federal district court ruled that TCC’s reliance on a policy prohibiting “disruptive activities” to block the empty holster protest violated the First Amendment. TCC ultimately paid $240,000 in attorneys’ fees for ignoring the Constitution.
Fortunately, President Sasser quickly responded to FIRE’s letter, acknowledging YAL’s First Amendment rights. In his February 1 response to FIRE, Sasser made clear that YAL would encounter no administrative or police opposition to its empty holster protest, stating that “[t]he First Amendment is of paramount importance to our mission to educate students and prepare them to be leaders in our society.” Sasser further stated that Santa Fe and its police department “recognize the importance of spirited and intellectual debate.” YAL successfully held its empty holster protest last week without incident.
“We’re always pleased to see a college president clearly acknowledge the First Amendment rights of his students,” said Peter Bonilla, associate director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “Other colleges should keep President Sasser’s recognition of ‘the importance of spirited and intellectual debate’ in mind when they encounter expression on divisive issues.”
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, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, 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 thefire.org.