AUSTIN – A federal judge on Thursday threw out a lawsuit filed by a band of University of Texas professors who’d argued the state’s new campus carry law “chills” their First Amendment right to free speech.
The ruling represents a major win for gun rights advocates, who have long pushed to allow concealed handguns on campus. They cheered the ruling of U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel, who found the professors lacked standing by failing to prove an actual injury and how the alleged injury was connected to the state attorney general or UT officials – listed as defendants in the case.
“The court’s ruling today is the correct outcome,” Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, said in an emailed statement. “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.”
The professors and their lawyers are all but promising to appeal the decision to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, saying they are “a bit confused” by the judge’s decision and are weighing their next move.
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“The fight for common-sense gun laws in Texas and the U.S. will be a long-term battle with many fronts. Hopefully, there will be additional legal attempts to stop the normalization of lethal weapons in our shared public spaces,” said Mia Carter, a plaintiff and associate professor in UT’s English Department.
Yeakle, an appointee of former President George W. Bush in the Western District of Texas’ Austin division, wrote in his ruling that alleging a “chill” of the professors’ rights is not a strong enough substitute for “objective harm or a threat of specific future harm.”
“Plaintiffs cannot establish standing by ‘simply claiming that they experienced a ‘chilling effect’ that resulted from a governmental policy that does not regulate, constrain, or compel any action on their part,'” he added.
The instructors, who teach liberal arts, English and feminist and LGBT literature, filed the suit in July 2016, less than a month before the state’s campus carry law went into effect in August. The law allows concealed handguns on campuses of higher education, but only carried by people at least 21 years old.
They argued the “possibility of the presence of concealed weapons in a classroom impedes my and other professors’ ability to create a daring, intellectually active, mutually supportive, and engaged community of thinkers.” The professors added that they would be forced to self-censor classroom discussions based on their fear that someone there could cause harm.
“The professors’ deep-seated concerns about the state compelling them to allow concealed handguns in their classrooms have not changed during the time since they filed suit a year ago. It is deeply worrying at all levels, legal included,” said Renea Hicks, the professors’ lawyer.
The judge’s order failed to touch on other arguments in the case, said Hicks, such as the validity of the professors’ concerns about the First and Second Amendments or equal-protection claims.
Hicks said he and the rest of the professors’ legal team will decide over the coming weeks whether to appeal.
The law is unpopular at the flagship university in Austin, where students and professors here have protested the law on campus and outside the courthouse. They have used slogans like “Books, not bullets,” and students demonstrated on campus with dildos strapped to their backpacks for a “cocks not glocks” rally, saying they feared the new law would bring gun violence and intimidation to the classroom. Since then, some UT graduate students have move their office hours into local bars because guns are not allowed in establishments that serve mostly alcohol.
The issue of having guns on campus is a touchy one for the university. The campus carry law went into effect on the 50th anniversary of a murderous rampage at the school in which Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old former Marine sniper, shot 16 people and wounded 32 others from a tower at the school. It was the worst school shooting in Texas history. Civilians from frat boys to hunting enthusiasts grabbed their guns and fired back at him in the standoff, according to reports.
Texas public colleges reported only three firearm discharges on campus in the first six months after the new law took effect, according to Houston Chronicle interviews and a review of university records. One had a connection to the campus carry law.
To prepare for the new law, UT leaders – including those nonplussed with the bill’s passage in 2015 – assembled a task force to figure out how to implement the new law and have since established campus carry policies. Leadership at Texas A&M University, the state’s second-largest university system, embraced the new law. Private universities were given the option to opt out of the campus carry law, which many did.
UT is reviewing the ruling, but declined further comment Friday.
Gun-rights advocates who fought for eight years to get the law passed said they are pleased with the ruling, but anticipate the professors will appeal.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” said Alice Tripp, a lobbyist for the Texas State Rifle Association, who said law-abiding gun owners deserve to have consistency on where they can take their weapon, whether it be a professor’s office or the classroom.
“You’re not going to stop a criminal with a sign that says you can’t come in,” she said.