As we reported in today’s press release, Tarrant County College (TCC) in Fort Worth, Texas, has banned students from wearing empty gun holsters as part of a protest against regulations and laws that prevent concealed carry license holders from carrying their guns on campus. Meant as a powerful metaphor for what these students see as being left defenseless under these regulations, this form of protest took place on campuses across the country this April. According to the organization that coordinated the event, Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, the protest involved 3,800 students from 600 campuses nationwide.
TCC appears to be one of the few campuses where administrators interfered with this protest, and the method of the interference was more than a little suspect. As can be seen in Vice President for Student Development Juan Garcia’s e-mail to student organizer Brett Poulos, Garcia says that he has “granted” their request to be able to protest, but goes right on to say that “you and other protestors may not wear empty gun holsters on campus, including the Free Speech Zone during the protest, or at any other time.” (Emphasis was in the original.) Wait—they can hold an “empty holster protest,” but aren’t allowed to wear empty holsters? The only way you could call this “granting” a request is by using logic only a college administrator could love.
So why the prohibition on holsters? An empty holster is merely a piece of leather. By itself, it is likely to be dangerous only if you were to hit someone with it. Other articles of clothing or personal items that college students are likely have on their person, such as books or backpacks, are inherently far more dangerous. Therefore, the objection to the holsters cannot be based in a real concern for safety; rather, it is based on what ideal administrators believe the empty holsters are meant to represent. This is the meat of the problem—TCC’s restriction on wearing the empty holsters can only be based on the viewpoint that TCC administrators believe that the protestors mean to communicate—and that’s unconstitutional. There is simply no reasonable way to look at the empty holster protest as it has been described and read into it some motivation that would allow the college to silence that form of expression. TCC may not like the message, but it has no justification for censoring it.
The 1969 Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District is the seminal ruling on this kind of symbolic student expression. In that case, the Court determined that high school students were free to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War because administrators showed no reason why such a protest would create substantial interference with discipline. And since a public high school is a far more regulated environment than a public college, TCC administrators accordingly have even less justification to interfere with peaceful symbolic protests.
TCC’s free speech zone is also a shameful abomination when it comes to free speech rights. Poulos describes the South Campus free speech zone as an elevated, circular concrete platform about 12 feet across. Sounds more like a free speech cage to me. It’s certainly not a meaningful space in which to hold a protest, and what’s the point, anyway, when you aren’t even allowed to express yourself fully there? Further, Tarrant County College is in Texas, home to the legally-struck-down “free speech gazebo” of Texas Tech. Maintaining a similar free speech zone in the very same state is certainly unwise from a legal standpoint, to say the least.
TCC has no real choice—it must recognize the right of its students to protest its policies and state laws in a peaceful manner—even if this involves empty gun holsters. Hopefully, the sunlight of public exposure will be enough to convince the school that its duty is to defend free speech, not restrict or quarantine it.