On the heels of FIRE’s publicity campaign exposing Tarrant County College’s (TCC’s) refusal to allow an “empty holster” protest to take place on its south campus, TCC has broken its silence and responded to our April 24th letter.
The response, from Vice Chancellor for Administration Erma J. Hadley, states that the decision to banish TCC student Brett Poulos and his peers to the school’s small free speech zone was made “based upon an evaluation of current circumstances facing our students and employees.” Hadley also cites TCC’s “Forum for Communication” policy and claims the school established a limited public forum reserved “for certain groups or for the discussion of certain topics.”
TCC’s entire response (also available here) reads as follows:
Dear Mr. Kissell [sic]
This is to acknowledge your letter of April 24, 2008 to Ernest L. Thomas, President, Tarrant County College, South Campus. You expressed your organization’s concerns about the decision rendered to the request made by South Campus student, Mr. Brett Poulos. Mr. Poulos requested a permit to stage an “Empty Holster Protest” on the campus.
Mr. Poulos was granted a request to protest in the College’s designated Free Speech Zone. I am not aware of the conversation between Mr. Poulos and Mr. Garcia concerning t-shirts.
We understand that the College’s decision to limit this protest to the Free Speech Zone may not be acceptable to your organization; however, the College made its decision based upon an evaluation of current circumstances facing our students and employees. We think the decision is within College policy as established in “Forum for Communication” Policy GF (Legal) in the Tarrant County College Policy and Regulation Manual. You may refer to the policy at www.tccd.edu. The policy is cited here for your convenience.
FORUM FOR COMMUNICATION
The College District may create a public forum of a place or channel of communication for use by the public at large for assembly and speech, for use by certain speakers, or for the discussion of certain subjects. Perry Educ. Ass’n v. Perry Local Educators’ Ass’n, 460 U.S. 37 (1983); Chiu v. Plano ISD, 260 F.3d 330 (5th Cir. 2001)
The College District is not required to allow persons to engage in every type of speech when the College District establishes a limited public forum; the College District may be justified in reserving its forum for certain groups or for the discussion of certain topics. The College District shall not discriminate against speech on the basis of viewpoint, and any restriction must be reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum. Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 533 U.S. 98 (2001); Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free Sch. Dist., 508 U.S. 384, 113 S. Ct. 2141 (1993)
Tarrant County College stands by the decision rendered to Mr. Poulos’ request.
Erma J. Hadley
TCC’s response fails to address key issues we put forth in our letter.
First of all, FIRE is not concerned—as Ms. Hadley seems to believe—with whether TCC’s actions were consistent with college policy, but rather is concerned with whether TCC’s policies and practices are consistent with the U.S. Constitution, which they clearly are not. (Hadley’s response here is reminiscent of a response we got from the New Jersey Attorney General’s office in our case at William Paterson University, in which New Jersey’s Attorney General famously defended William Paterson’s actions by stating that “clearly speech which violates a non-discrimination policy is not protected.”) As we explained to TCC, wearing an empty holster on campus is “clearly a constitutionally protected act of symbolic expression tantamount to the black armbands students wore when they protested the Vietnam War-acts explicitly protected in Tinker.” The firm, longstanding protections Tinker afforded to symbolic speech in a high school setting only gain more force when applied to college students, a group that administrators have far less authority to regulate than high schoolers.
Second, TCC ignores our objection to its maintaining a free speech zone. In our letter, we reminded the school that “one of the central functions of institutions of higher learning, particularly in a free society, is to serve as the ultimate ‘free speech area.’…By limiting free speech to a small fraction of its campus, TCC sends the message that speech is to be feared, restrained, and monitored. This message is completely incompatible with a free society and stands in stark opposition to central ideals of higher education.” Hadley’s response not only glosses over the indefensible free speech zone, but it also illustrates the exact reason FIRE fights against these restrictive areas that stifle student speech. Because TCC reserves the right to determine what groups or topics should be relegated to the free speech zone, it sends the message that certain subjects should be feared, restrained, and monitored, instead of welcomed onto all areas of campus and faced with rigorous debate.
Third, in her public forum discussion, Hadley ignores the case of Roberts v. Haragan, 346 F. Supp. 2d 853 (N.D. Tex. 2004), a case instigated by FIRE, in which a federal court opined that “to the extent [that a] campus has park areas, sidewalks, streets, or other similar common areas, these areas are public forums, at least for the University’s students, irrespective of whether the University has so designated them or not.” TCC is a public institution of higher learning, where common areas are public forums—whether the school realizes this or not.
Finally, it makes a mockery of the free speech zone to declare that it is actually a limited public forum where speech is not free after all.
In short, TCC badly misses the mark in this belated response to FIRE’s efforts. We will continue to keep you posted on our progress there.