It is a measure of how entitled many college professors think themselves that a group of professors at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), annoyed that the state legislature ignored their protests and feelings, filed a lawsuit against the Texas attorney general, the president of UT, and the UT Board of Regents to express their disapproval of a law. The law in question allows people who have permits to carry concealed handguns on campus and inside most buildings on state university buildings.
That law (“Campus Carry Law”) was signed by Governor Abbott in June, 2015 and took effect August 16, 2016. Before the law had taken effect, three UT professors (Jennifer Glass, Lisa Moore, and Mia Carter) filed suit to block it. Their key argument against the law was that it infringes upon their First Amendment rights.
How could a law that allows people with concealed carry permits to keep their firearms when they’re on public campuses infringe upon the right of free speech?
The professors argued that it could “chill” discussion of controversial topics in class because faculty members and students might fear that someone with a weapon would shoot someone who disagreed with him. This argument plays upon the stereotype of gun owners as volatile people who can’t control their emotions. Bring up a touchy subject and you might cause a shooting spree, so don’t discuss any topics that might send a gun-toting student into a rage.
Would a court overturn a lawfully enacted statute merely because a group of professors claim that it makes them worried?
So far, the answer is a firm “no.”
Federal District Judge Lee Yeakel’s decision (available here) was filed July 7 and dismisses the case. The basis for his ruling was that the three plaintiffs lack what lawyers call “standing to sue,” which means that they are appropriate parties to bring the case. The rules on “standing” are meant to prevent courts from being inundated with suits from people who want to complain, but have not truly suffered any injury.
Judge Yeakel ruled against the three professors, writing “Plaintiffs cannot establish standing by simply claiming that they experienced a ‘chilling effect’ that resulted from governmental policy that does not regulate, constrain, or compel any action on their part.”
In response to their statements about “chilling,” Judge Yeakel replied, “Plaintiffs do not specify a subject matter or point of view they feel they must eschew as a result of the Campus Carry Law…or point to a specific harm they have suffered or will suffer as a result of the law and policy.”
The defendant in the case, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, is quoted in this Texas Tribune article saying, “The court’s ruling today is the correct outcome. The fact that a small group of professors dislike a law and speculate about a ‘chilling effect’ is hardly a valid basis to set the law aside.”
Judge Yeakel’s dismissal does not end the case, of course. The plaintiffs can appeal to the Fifth Circuit. If they do, Attorney General Paxton might include in his argument the fact that quite a few states allow concealed carry on their state university campuses and have never had any incident like the shooting spree that the plaintiffs here claim to be so worried about. He could also note that there have been murderous shooting incidents on campuses where guns are not allowed.
Arkansas State University history professor Erik Gilbert made both of those points in this Martin Center article, where he concluded, “It’s very hard to see any intersection between premeditated murderers and law-abiding people who obtain carry permits. The rules regarding guns on campus mean little to people who come to campus bent on committing crimes.”
Texas’ Campus Carry Law will almost certainly survive if the plaintiffs press ahead and appeal. Then they will have to decide if the threat they perceive is so bad that they feel compelled to resign. I’d bet that not one does so.