In July, University of Texas at Austin professors Jennifer Lynn Glass, Lisa Moore, and Mia Carter filed suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and UT officials to block the implementation of a recent change in Texas law that permits campus carry for those with a license in most portions of public university campuses. In particular, the professors took issue with the fact that the law does not empower individual professors to restrict carry in the classrooms they use.
In their complaint, the professors first contend that permitting individuals to exercise their Right-to-Carry in public university classrooms “chills [the professors’] First Amendment right to academic freedom.” The complaint suggests far-fetched scenarios where, in theory, a student could become so upset with the topic of classroom discussion that they are driven to homicidal violence. This potential, the plaintiffs argue, will force them to dampen the intensity of classroom debate. Notably, the cases cited by the plaintiffs in arguing that the First Amendment offers a robust defense of academic liberty involve government attempts to censor academic expression, not self-censorship brought about by the prejudices or fevered dreams of the educators themselves.
At least as creative as the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the First Amendment is their interpretation of the Second. The complaint contends that the plaintiffs “have a constitutional right to protection under the ‘well-regulated’ component of the Second Amendment.” In essence, the complaint argues that the Second Amendment, rather than protecting an individual right to keep and bear arms, imposes an affirmative duty on the government to prohibitively restrict the right. According to the plaintiffs, the government has failed in this duty, as in their opinion, “regulation of handgun possession and use is notoriously lax and inefficient.”
Even if one entertains this erroneous interpretation of the Second Amendment, other questions arise. If, as the plaintiffs’ bizarre theory holds, the Second Amendment imposes an affirmative duty on the government to regulate firearms, who would determine the nature and severity of such regulation? One might reasonably consider this the purview of the state legislature. However, here the plaintiffs seem to suggest that courts should determine the scope and character of firearms regulation, when the state legislature fails to sufficiently restrict firearms. This argument is a remarkable, albeit flimsy, attack on the basic notion of separation of powers. The plaintiffs also advanced spurious Fourteenth Amendment claims.
On August 8, Paxton and the UT responded with separate motions to dismiss the case. The attorney general’s motion pointed out the flaws in the plaintiffs’ First Amendment claim, noting that the “First Amendment is only violated by state action, not private conduct.” The motion goes on to make clear, “Plaintiffs are complaining that the presence of concealed carry violates their right to academic freedom, but the State is not responsible for an individual’s decision to conceal carry in a classroom or not.”
Paxton’s motion expertly countered the plaintiffs’ foolish interpretation of the Second Amendment. The motion to dismiss noted, “The Second Amendment is a floor, not a ceiling. The amendment restricts the government from infringing the right of the people to keep and bear arms; it has absolutely nothing to do with the government deciding to allow its people to bear arms to a greater extent than required by the Second Amendment.”
Rebutting the plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment claims, Paxton’s motion explained that the Texas Legislature’s decision to tailor where an individual may exercise their Right-to-Carry on state property is a rational and legitimate exercise of legislative authority. In countering the plaintiffs claim that the campus carry law should be void for vagueness, Paxton pointed out that “countless” other state laws operate in similar fashion.
On August 22, United States District Judge Lee Yeakel denied the professors’ request for a preliminary injunction, ensuring that qualified UT students would be permitted to exercise their Right-to-Carry at the start of the fall semester on August 24.
In rejecting the plaintiffs’ First Amendment claim, Yeakel noted that Texas’ campus carry law, and the manner in which the UT has chosen to enforce it, “is not a content-based regulation of speech, nor can it reasonably be construed as a direct regulation of speech.” Addressing the vagueness claim, Yeakel found that a “person of ordinary intelligence” would understand the requirements of the campus carry law as administered by the UT. The court also found the plaintiff’s contention that the state did not have a rational basis in how it has tailored restrictions on the Right-to-Carry unpersuasive, noting, “It appears to the court that neither the Texas Legislature nor the Board of Regents has overstepped its legitimate power to determine where a licensed individual may carry a concealed handgun in an academic setting.”