HOUSTON, October 20, 2008—After distributing a jocular flyer listing “Top Ten Gun Safety Tips” at the school’s “club rush,” a student group was threatened with probation and derecognition at Lone Star College–Tomball, a public college near Houston. After college officials banned the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) from distributing the flyer, the school’s general counsel invoked the specter of the Virginia Tech shootings, suggesting that even a “mention of firearms and weapons” is inherently a “material interference” with the school’s operations. The group has turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“Distributing a joke-filled top-ten list at a student activities fair is a creative way for a student group to educate its peers about itself,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “Lone Star should be ashamed of invoking the tragedy of Virginia Tech in an attempt to justify the censorship of any mention of firearms at Lone Star. Doing so is not only an affront to constitutional rights—it trivializes the experiences of the true victims of gun violence.”
On September 8, YCT was distributing flyers, along with other student organizations, during “club rush,” an event where student groups attempt to recruit new members. YCT’s flyers featured the “Top Ten Gun Safety Tips,” including “If your gun misfires, never look down the barrel to inspect it,” “Always keep your gun pointed in a safe direction, such as at a Hippy or a Communist,” and “No matter how excited you are about buying your first gun, do not run around yelling ‘I have a gun! I have a gun!'” The flyer invited students to the club’s informational meeting the following week.
According to YCT Chairman Robert Comer, Program Manager for Student Activities Shannon Marino told him that the flyer was inappropriate and confiscated the flyers. Comer appealed to Dean of Student Development E. Edward Albracht, but Albracht also said the flyer was inappropriate and invoked last year’s shootings at Virginia Tech. In response, Comer made new flyers without the “Top Ten” theme and distributed them for the remainder of the club rush.
The college’s efforts to censor YCT’s expression did not end there. On September 11, Marino informed Comer that the school’s legal department would be reviewing the flyers and that afterward, the school might disband YCT or put the group on probation for the year—simply because of the recruitment flyer.
FIRE wrote Lone Star College–Tomball President Raymond Hawkins on September 26, reminding him of the college’s constitutional obligation not to subject YCT to prosecution and censorship. FIRE noted that as a public college, Lone Star College–Tomball is required to respect the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and to acknowledge that the flyer’s contents constitute protected speech. FIRE asked President Hawkins to respond by October 10.
On October 14, FIRE received an e-mail from Brian S. Nelson, General Counsel for the Lone Star College System. Nelson stated that any “mention of firearms and weapons” is inherently a “material interference with the operation of the school or the rights of others” because such language “brings fear and concern to students, faculty and staff.” Nelson also stated that “the tragedy of Virginia Tech cannot be underestimated when it comes to speech relating to firearms—however ‘satirical and humorous’ the speech may be perceived by some.”
“The First Amendment does not make an exception for unreasonable hysteria over a humorous firearms-related top-ten list,” Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said. “It is outrageous that the Young Conservatives of Texas are apparently still under investigation more than a month after distributing their flyer. When speech is so obviously protected by the Constitution, there is simply nothing to investigate and not a single reason to censor.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.
Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Raymond Hawkins, President, Lone Star College-Tomball: 281-351-3360; Raymond.M.Hawkins@lonestar.edu