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Judge in Tarrant County College Trial 'Astounded' By Free Speech Restrictions

Tarrant County College (TCC) students Clayton Smith and John Schwertz Jr.who, with the help of FIRE and the ACLU of Texas, filed a federal lawsuit in November to challenge TCC's "free speech zone" policyfinally got their day in court this week. In fact, they got three days in court. And as the bench trial that began on Tuesday before U.S. District Court Judge Terry Means in the Northern District of Texas, Fort Worth Division, drew to a close yesterday, preliminary reports seem promising.

On Wednesday, Bill Hanna of The Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas) reported that Judge Means was taken aback by TCC's efforts to restrict speech on campus:

From the bench Tuesday, Means said he was "astounded" by the lengths TCC has gone to limit expression on campus by creating free-speech zones. Since the lawsuit was filed, TCC rewrote its handbook and did away with the free-speech zones.

But Means said the existence of such zones "implies" that there is not free speech on the rest of the campus.

He told attorneys that he was a student body president at Southern Methodist University in the early 1970s when the campus was rife with protests over the Vietnam War and the treatment of minorities on campus.

He recalled that university officials worked with protesters to facilitate safe protests rather than trying to stifle free speech.

And yesterday, Hanna reported that Judge Means didn't find one of TCC's primary justifications for banning Smith and Schwertz Jr.'s empty holster protestnamely, concern that the protest might prompt a student to bring a gun to campusto be reasonable: 

When Tarrant County College denied a student the right to stage an empty holster protest in April 2008 at the South Campus, officials feared someone would use the event to bring a weapon on campus.

"There was certainly the expectation that someone was going to show up with a gun in a holster," TCC interim Chancellor Erma Johnson Hadley said under cross examination during a trial in federal court Thursday.

School officials had the concern even though they had no evidence that anyone would, and U.S. District Court Judge Terry Means told herwhen she couldn't provide any proof of why she thought someone planned to do sothat free speech cannot be limited on the basis of an "undifferentiated fear."

"I can't see any tangible basis for this fear," Means said.

We've shared Means' incredulity on this score for a long time now. As I wrote here on The Torch last March, college administrators like Hadley too often invoke unreasonable fears of "violence" to censor protected speech regarding the right to bear firearms.

FIRE is very pleased that Smith and Schwertz Jr. have finally been heard in courtand especially pleased that they seem to have received the sympathetic hearing they deserved. Of course, when the ruling comes in, we'll keep you posted right here on The Torch.

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