Texas students challenge protest restrictions

November 5, 2009

Two community college students who favor carrying concealed weapons are challenging their school’s restrictions on campus protests, their attorneys announced Thursday.

Clayton Smith and John Schwertz Jr. filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the Tarrant County College District. They contend the college system restricts their First Amendment rights by controlling the time, place and manner of protests.

The students plan to participate in a nationwide demonstration next week known as "empty holster protests," calling attention to police forbidding concealed weapons on campus.

School officials have limited the protest to the front porch of the student center and prohibited handing out fliers from anywhere but behind a table on the porch, according to the lawsuit. Administrators also told the men they could not wear empty holsters.

"TCC has no reason to believe that our action would cause any problems on campus," Smith said in a statement. "All we want to do is wear empty holsters to express our political views."

Attorney Angela Robinson, who represents the college system and interim Chancellor Erma Johnson Hadley, said the college’s protest rules are "practical, enforceable and aligned with state and federal laws."

"The college believes it has established policies that respect the constitutional rights of both students and faculty while also providing for safety and security," Robinson said.

Tarrant County College prohibits concealed weapons on campus. Smith and Schwertz plan to express their opposition by wearing empty holsters on their hips and donning T-shirts.

Smith and Schwertz are being represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American Civil Liberties Union. Their lawsuit also challenges TCC’s requirement that students submit a form requesting permission to use the free speech zone at least 24 hours in advance of a demonstration.

"TCC would like to portray the tiny spots on campus that they have designated for public forums as ‘free speech zones,’ but what they have really done is made their campuses into censorship zones," said Lisa Graybill, legal director of the ACLU of Texas. "Colleges and universities thrive on the free exchange of ideas and these students have a right to express their ideas in a non-disruptive way on the public areas of a campus."

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