Four years ago this month, FIRE become embroiled in a battle that would end in a decisive victory for free speech in the courts.
The controversy first began in March 2008, when Tarrant County College (TCC) student Brett Poulos attempted to organize an “Empty Holster Protest.” In conjunction with other protests spearheaded by Students for Concealed Carry on Campus across the country, TCC students would peacefully attend class and perform other daily tasks while wearing empty holsters to signify opposition to state laws and school policies denying concealed handgun license holders the same rights on college campuses that they are granted in most other places.
When Poulos informed the school of the event, TCC officials granted the request in a strange way. TCC limited the demonstration to the campus’ free speech zone and refused to allow protesters to wear empty holsters anywhere on the South Campus, even inside the free speech zone. After a meeting in which officials warned Poulos that the school would take action if he or any others violated these constraints, he came to FIRE for help.
FIRE wrote to TCC warning that its free speech zone was unconstitutional and pointing to the long list of court decisions knocking down such zones at other colleges and universities. We also explained that Poulos’ proposed event was a constitutionally protected form of protest, and we called on the school to reverse its decision and allow students to carry empty holsters as part of the demonstration. Unfortunately, even after FIRE took the case public, the school refused to back down. In fact, the following year TCC prohibited yet another protest led by student Clayton Smith, not only banning students from wearing empty holsters but also from distributing flyers anywhere on campus.
In the face of the school’s continuing contempt for the First Amendment, FIRE worked with Clayton to find counsel, and he filed a lawsuit against Tarrant County College in federal district court in coordination with FIRE and the ACLU of Texas. The suit challenged the constitutionality of TCC’s free speech zone and requested a temporary restraining order to prohibit TCC from preventing the planned “Empty Holster Protest.” Just two days later, the court granted that motion, and the students held their demonstration that fall.
Then, in March 2010, the U.S. District Court ruled against TCC and upheld the students’ right to wear empty holsters as part of their protest. The court also ruled that a number of TCC’s speech codes unconstitutionally restricted student rights on campus, decisively striking down the school’s policies prohibiting “disruptive activities” and “cosponsorship,” a code which forbade students and faculty from holding campus events in association with any “off-campus person or organization” and which the court argued prevented TCC students “from speaking on campus on issues of any social importance.” During the course of the lawsuit proceedings, TCC had already taken steps to amend its unconstitutional free speech zone policy, helping to further solidify the victory.
Not only was the suit successful, but just months later the court also ruled that TCC was liable for over $240,000 in legal fees. The message couldn’t have been clearer—speech codes are not only unconstitutional, but they also carry a heavy price tag.
In 2010, FIRE released a video based in part on the case at Tarrant County College, which reviewed the various ways schools have tried to clamp down on discussions of gun rights on campus.
Unfortunately, America’s colleges and universities are far too eager to shut down discussions of topics as important as this, and this case, along with the hundreds of others FIRE has encountered over the years, reveals just how damaging censorship can be to critical debates in American society.
Bridget Sweeney serves as Assistant to the President at The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Used with the permission of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.