Federal Judge Denies Texas Professors’ Request to Keep Guns Out of Classrooms

Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Judge Lee Yeakel

By Ryan Kocian, Courthouse News Service


AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Texas college students will carry concealed guns into classes when the fall semester begins Wednesday, as a federal judge Monday refused three University of Texas at Austin professors' request for an injunction to keep concealed handguns out of their classrooms.


U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled late Monday, more than two weeks after the initial hearing. Senate Bill 11, allowing concealed guns in classrooms, took effect Aug. 1. The professors said they will press ahead toward trial, without the injunction.


The three professors, Drs. Jennifer Lynn Glass, Lisa Moore and Mia Carter, sued (pdf) Attorney General Ken Paxton, UT President Gregory Fenves, and the UT Board of Regents on July 6, and requested the injunction on July 22.


The Texas Legislature approved Senate Bill 11 in 2015 and it was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott. It allows concealed weapons on state college and university campuses, and prevents the schools from prohibiting them, save in certain areas.


The professors claimed the law was unconstitutionally vague, violated their academic freedom and due process, and could endanger people in their classrooms.


But Yeakel ruled that a preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy that should not be granted unless the party seeking it "clearly carried the burden of persuasion on all four requirements."


The requirements are (1) a substantial likelihood of success on the merits; (2) a substantial threat of irreparable injury absent the injunction; (3) that the threatened injury that would result if the injunction is denied outweighs any harm that will result if the injunction is granted; and (4) that the grant of an injunction will not disserve the public interest.


Yeakel rejected the claim that the gun policy violated due process by being unconstitutionally vague as to the penalty imposed should they prohibit guns in their classrooms.


"The court finds that a person of ordinary intelligence would understand if a professor were to communicate to her class that individuals licensed to carry handguns may not carry a handgun in her classroom, such communication would be a misrepresentation of and in contravention to the Campus Carry Policy," he wrote in the 11-page order (pdf).


He also rejected the claim that the gun law infringes upon their First Amendment right to academic freedom.


The judge acknowledged that the presence of guns might affect classroom debate, but said that "neither the Campus Carry Law nor the Campus Carry Policy is a content-based regulation of speech, nor can either reasonably be construed as a direct regulation of speech."


"The court has searched the jurisprudence of this country from the ratification of the Constitution forward and has found no precedent for plaintiffs' proposition that there is a right of academic freedom so broad that it allows them such autonomous control of their classrooms both physically and academically that their concerns override decisions of the legislature and the governing body of the institution that employs them. Their First Amendment claim is and must be bottomed on their right to speak and teach freely. Neither the Campus Carry Law nor the Campus Carry Policy forbids them from doing so."


Nor did he accept the professors' Equal Protection claim that the law has no rational basis, in forcing them to allow guns in their classes while professors at private universities are not required to do so, and that there is no rational basis for the law to exclude handguns from some areas on campus, but not others.


"The court concludes at this stage in the proceedings that requiring public universities to allow licensed individuals to carry concealed handguns is a basis for the Campus Carry Law that bears a debatably rational relationship to the conceivable legitimate governmental end of enabling individuals to defend themselves. Further, the court concludes that allowing private universities to prohibit concealed carry by licensed individuals bears a rational relationship to the legitimate governmental interest of respecting the private-property rights of private universities," Yeakel wrote.


"The Campus Carry Policy's allowance of the licensed concealed carrying of handguns in some areas on campus but not others does not violate the Equal Protection Clause because they are rationally related to the University's legitimate interests of complying with the Campus Carry Law and promoting safety on campus.


"Because plaintiffs at this time have failed to establish a substantial likelihood of ultimate success on the merits of their asserted claims, their request for immediate relief must fail."


The professors' lead attorney, Renea Hicks, told Courthouse News in an email he was disappointed with the ruling.


"When public policy is pushed this far, way beyond historical experience, and carries with it such potentially dire consequences, I think it kind of catches the law in general and courts in particular off guard; it takes a while for them to get their constitutional footing again and figure out how such strange and terrible things are to be seen under our constitutional system," Hicks wrote.


Hicks also provided a response from Professor Carter, who said: "Of course, the decision is disappointing, but we will forge ahead with the trial. The request for the injunction reflected our professional and public health and safety concerns, our concerns for academic freedom and a healthy and productive learning environment. We will continue to fight for lethal weapon-free learning environments at U.T. and in the state of Texas.


"The constitutional carry absolutists, or 'gundamentalists,' as some call them, have already announced their plans for the state of Texas in the 2016 Republican Party platform: 'The elimination of all gun-free zones.'


"The responses from the public that we have received — from parents and alumni, from UT donors, from students and fellow faculty members at public institutions across the state of Texas — suggest that this NRA and gun lobby well-funded dream of all guns all the time everywhere is not the vision of the future that Texans want for their children and our public colleges, universities, and community colleges' students."


Attorney General Paxton, however, was delighted: "There is simply no legal justification to deny licensed, law-abiding citizens on campus the same measure of personal protection they are entitled to elsewhere in Texas. The right to keep and bear arms is guaranteed for all Americans, including college students, and I will always stand ready to protect that right," Paxton said in a statement.


Fall semester classes at the University of Texas begin this Wednesday.


To Learn More:

Dr. Jennifer Lynn Glass, et al., v. Ken Paxton, et al. (U.S. District Court for Western District of Texas, Austin Division) (pdf)

Texas University Professors’ Lawsuit Targets Law Allowing Concealed Guns in Classrooms (by Ryan Cocian, Courthouse News Service)

Texas Professors Warn that Gun-Carrying Students May Curtail Academic Discussions (Associated Press)

New Texas Law to Allow Guns in University Classrooms (by Jon Herskovitz, Reuters)

Real Guns Welcome in Texas College Dorms, But Candles, Toasters and Squirt Guns are Banned (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)


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