Every year, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression awards the "Jefferson Muzzle" to a few of the year’s most egregious violators of free speech rights. For the second year in a row (and three out of the last four years), the Center has selected one or more of the malefactors in FIRE cases to receive this symbol of dishonor.
For suppressing on a community college campus several types of humorous student expression regarding the use or presence of firearms, without any evidence of harmful effects, 2009 Jefferson Muzzles go to The Administration of Lone Star College (Texas) and the Administraion of Tarrant County College (Texas).
In the aftermath of the tragic events at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, both involving substantial loss of life, college administrators are understandably uneasy about condoning jokes that concern firearms on their own or any other campus. They rightly take alarm at even humorous statements that could endanger the safety of their students, faculty or staff. Yet the specific incidents that occurred at two Texas community colleges created no such risks, yet led to serious suppression of student expression simply because the subject of that humor was firearms.
Student members of the Young Conservatives of Texas at Lone Star College were forbidden to distribute on campus a flier that listed (obviously in jest) the "Top Ten Gun Safety Tips" during a "rush" program designed to attract new members. Among the facetious "safety tips’ were such desiderata as "If your gun misfires, never look down the barrel to inspect it" and "no matter how responsible he seems, never give your gun to a monkey." Many might agree that launching such a flier reflected poor taste. Yet the college administration’s insistence – in support of its ban – that any "mention of firearms" in the post-Virginia Tech era poses a "material interference" seems not only serious overreaction but also highly insensitive to free expression in a setting where speech should especially be unfettered.
The catalyst for similar repression at Tarrant County College was rather different, but posed quite similar concerns. A student group announced that its members planned to wear empty holsters on campus to protest the college’s refusal to allow students with concealed-carry permits from bringing concealed handguns onto college premises. (The merits of that edict are of course not questioned here). After initially curtailing the planned protest, the college’s chief student affairs officer responded to the group’s declared design for an "Empty Holster" event by banning entirely the planned symbolic wearing of empty holsters. Without citing any specific risk that such a symbolic protest might create, the college administration apparently deemed such expression incompatible with campus anxiety in the post-Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois era.
More from the Center on these cases, as well as on the other recipients of this year’s Jefferson Muzzles, is available on the 2009 Muzzles website. Unfortunately, these two cases appear to represent a growing and worrisome trend on campuses that Will remarked upon a few weeks back: the censorship of speech relating to guns and the Second Amendment. I feel like I am belaboring the obvious when I say that there is no more appropriate place to discuss issues of guns on campus than on the campus itself, but this seems not to have occurred to a significant number of colleges and universities.
I’d also like to draw attention to two other Muzzles, both awarded in cases where FIRE wasn’t involved but which sound atrocious: Yuba College and Cypress College in California, where administrators censored Christian and pro-life speech by applying outrageous "free speech zone" policies, time restrictions on when students could freely speak on campus, and other ludicrous obstacles to free expression on campus.
For those folks (if any remain) who doubt that free speech is threatened on America’s campuses, the fact that no less than four colleges were named in this year’s Muzzles is a real indication that the problem on campuses is widespread—and that campus liberty is, as ever, in need of all of us to defend it.