Tarrant County College sued for banning empty holster protest

November 5, 2009

Two students at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth have filed suit, saying their free speech rights are being trampled by the school, which has forbade them from wearing empty holsters on campus as part of a national protest.

The holster motif springs from a group calling itself Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, formed by a University of North Texas student in response to the deadly 2007 shootings on the Virginia Tech campus. The organization claims 40,000 members in all 50 states. The holster-sans-weapon intends to convey a feeling of vulnerability to campus crime.

The Tarrant County suit, filed in federal court with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), challenges the college’s policy of relegating such political expression to "free speech zones" on the campus and requiring students to apply 24 hours in advance of any protest. The college also did not allow a flyer campaign, according to the suit.

The college referred all questions to its attorney in the matter, Angela Robinson, who said the college would fight the petition.

"Of course we will be opposing the request to allow empty holsters on campus. The college believes it has policies to protect the constitutional rights of students on campus, but also has to worry about the safety of students," she said.

Asked why empty holsters posed a threat, she said: "I can’t really get into what potentially might be evidence, but you can use your imagination as to the danger of empty holsters on campus, with the partial covering of it, or who knows if it’s empty."

One of the two plaintiffs, Clayton Smith, said the college, which serves about 40,000 students, illegally tried to "tell us who we can talk to and where we can talk to them," making it difficult to build membership for the gun advocacy student organization

"It’s both an ideological concern and a safety concern," he said of his motivation. "Obviously college campuses aren’t some magical zone where no violence occurs, and so I feel particularly strongly that every student that feels the need to carry handgun anywhere in their lives should also be able to do so on a college campus."

Smith had conducted an empty holster protest at the University of Texas at Arlington, with no objection from school administration. 

William Creeley, legal and public advocacy coordinator for FIRE, said his group and the ACLU attempted to inform the college it had run afoul of several constitutional precedents, but got no satisfaction. The first of three examples of denied holster-toting students dates back to March of 2008, he said.

Previous precedents on the right to protest in the educational realm are clear, Creeley argues. He cited a 2004 case in which a Texas Tech policy of relegating protests to a "free speech gazebo" was struck down – by a federal judge in the same district the current suit was filed in. Texas Tech has 20,000 students; the gazebo was about 10-by-20 feet, Creeley said.

He cited another case from 1969, Tinker vs. Des Moines School District, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of high school students to wear black armbands protesting the Vietnam War.

The Virginia Tech shootings have unleashed a slew of gun-related protests on campuses, which in some instances has caused campuses to crack down on free expression in ways that disturb civil libertarians. TCC already had been flagged by one such group, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, which gave the college a "muzzle award" this year in connection with the banned holster protest.

Schools: Tarrant County College Cases: Tarrant County College Bans Symbolic ‘Empty Holster’ Protest