The University of Texas Board of Regents today decided to allow professors at the university's Austin campus to create personal gun-free zones in their personal offices.
The decisions come in the wake of a lawsuit filed by three professors last week that challenges Texas laws allowing licensed college students to carry concealed weapons into classrooms.
The board’s decisions today recognize, however, that even if professors' offices can be gun-free, their classrooms can't. Students with concealed carry permits will be able to take firearms into classrooms, as required by new state laws.
The three professors, who teach at the Austin campus, argued in a lawsuit filed in a federal district court that state laws approved by the legislature in 2015 will constrain academic freedom in the classrooms of public universities in Texas.
“Compelling professors at a public university to allow, without any limitation or restriction, students to carry concealed guns in their classrooms chills their First Amendment rights to academic freedom,” states the lawsuit, which lists professors Jennifer Lynn Glass, Lisa Moore and Mia Carter as plaintiffs.
The Board of Regents struck down a UT campus proposal that would have required a person licensed to carry a semiautomatic handgun to remove any chambered round of ammunition while on university grounds. Regents voted 7-2 against the provision, arguing that removing rounds tends to increase the chance of accidents.
The board, however, voted to leave in place the UT Austin’s proposed rule to allow professors to establish their offices as zones where concealed weapons are not allowed.
The professors who filed suit have requested the federal court to issue an injunction against implementation of Texas gun policies they see as “dangerously experimental” so that they can maintain their classrooms as gun-free zones when students return on Aug. 24.
“Robust academic debate in the classroom inevitably will be dampened to some degree by the fear that it could expose other students or themselves to gun violence by the professor’s awareness that one or more students has one or more handguns hidden but at the ready if the gun owner is moved to anger and impulsive action,” the lawsuit states.
Some legal observers, however, were not swayed by the arguments in the lawsuit.
“If this is how they would use the courts to restrict the constitutional rights of their students, I seriously doubt there is much wide-ranging discussion in their classrooms,” Randy Barnett, a Georgetown University Law Center professor, told AMI Newswire Tuesday.
The new Texas laws allow public universities to restrict concealed weapons from more sensitive areas of campus, such as where alcohol is sold, but those restrictions don’t generally apply to classrooms.
The professors at the Austin campus argue that oversight of the concealed carry licenses is lax and that the number of permits issued in Texas has ballooned to nearly a million by the end of 2015. The program allows gun owners who have received some private training and are at least 21 years old to pay $140 for a permit that remains in effect for four years.
Because of the age requirement, many undergraduate university students will not be able to legally carry guns.
The professors also expressed concern about gun violence at universities nationwide. “In 2015, more than 20 shootings occurred on college campuses across the country,” the lawsuit states. “In recent times, college campuses have seen horrific scenes of gun violence directed at students, staff and faculty.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton last week called the lawsuit baseless and insulting to gun owners.
“The Texas legislature passed a constitutionally sound law, and I will vigorously defend it,” Paxton said in a prepared statement. “Adults who are licensed by the state to carry a handgun anywhere in Texas do not suddenly become a menace to society when they set foot on campus.”
Asked by AMI Newswire for a response to the lawsuit, Michael Newbern, spokesman for the group Students for Concealed Carry, provided a statement saying the lawsuit lacked factual foundation or legal precedent.
“At best, it is a Hail Mary pass; at worst it is an attempt to manipulate the UT Board of Regents,” the statement said, adding that the board would be reviewing UT Austin concealed carry policies this week.
Antonia Okafor, Southwest regional director for Students for Concealed Carry, said in a prepared statement: “Licensed concealed carry has been allowed throughout most of Texas for more than 20 years, with no indication that it has led to an increase in violent crime or gun accidents.”
The policy has been allowed on more than 100 university campuses for about seven years on average, producing not a single report of a fatality, suicide attempt or assault, Okafor said.
The group goes on to state: “The notion that three professors whose jobs were never impeded by the fact that any student might be carrying a gun illegally will suddenly have their jobs impeded by the fact that one student out of every 100 might – after having passed an extensive vetting process – be carrying a gun legally is nothing more than posturing on the part of activists who disagree with the new law.”
The connection between the Second Amendment and the right to carry concealed handguns, however, remains controversial. In a recent blog post, professor Steven Schwinn of John Marshall Law School noted that last month, a divided Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the amendment does not guarantee citizens the legal right to a concealed carry permit.
In a victory for backers of gun regulations, the court held that restrictions to obtaining such permits in California are allowed. But the Ninth Circuit did not rule on whether the Second Amendment protects carrying firearms openly in public, only that the amendment does not protect concealed carry policies, Schwinn said.
That decision, however, could be re-examined in the future by the Supreme Court.