UT Profs Balk at Students Carrying Guns in Class

     AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — A federal judge said Thursday that he needs more information to decide whether a University of Texas policy to punish professors who bar concealed handguns from their classrooms is unconstitutional.
     Attorneys for both sides argued for nearly three hours Thursday before U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel and a packed first-floor courtroom. Applause broke out as the three UT professors, Jennifer Glass, Lisa Moore and Mia Carter, arrived to take their seats.
     The professors originally sued Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, UT President Gregory Fenves, and members of the UT Board of Regents in Federal Court on July 6.
     The professors said their First, Second and 14th Amendment rights would be violated if they were forced to allow concealed handguns in their classrooms to comply with Senate Bill 11, also called campus carry.
     The law allows license holders to carry a concealed handgun throughout university campuses. It went into effect on August 1.
     In Thursday’s hearing, initial debate focused on whether UT’s gun policies had specific disciplinary or punitive measures for professors who chose to ban guns in their classes.
     Yeakel noted that if there were no adverse consequences for professors who ban guns, there would be no First Amendment issue for the court to deal with.
     Anne Mackin, one of the UT defendants’ attorneys, replied that the plaintiffs misunderstood UT’s position and that professors could in fact be disciplined for banning guns based on university operating procedures.
     Judge Yeakel then asked what the exact disciplinary procedure was that was approved by the Board of Regents. This led to a nearly hour-long debate as to what these procedures were and where they were located in the language of the campus-carry policies.
     “If I am being called upon to make a decision I want to know exactly where that language is saying the professor is subject to discipline,” a frustrated Yeakel said.
     Another of UT’s attorneys, Amanda Cochran-McCall, tried to direct the judge to the specific policy, but the professors’ attorney, Renea Hicks, disagreed.
     The judge ultimately had to call a recess so both sides could try to agree on which policy indicated the punishments for professors who banned guns.
     After the recess, Hicks said the UT policies were “unconstitutionally vague” regarding what the punishments were for noncompliant professors. He said he would add this claim to the First Amendment and Equal Protection claims of the professors.
     Another key point argued by Hicks was that only a small section of the university would be affected if the three professors were allowed to ban guns. This amounts to 117 students attending their classes on actual class days — not the approximately 50,000 students campus-wide who will be starting classes on Aug. 24.
     “What’s the harm if the court grants an injunction that will only affect 117 students?” Hicks asked.
     Yeakel, though, disagreed, saying an injunction “does have a much broader application potentially. I’m not restricting my vision to three professors.”
     Hicks argued briefly on the Equal Protection claims and asked why UT policy bans guns in some places, but not classrooms.
     “There is no reason why a student needs a gun in a classroom but does not need one at a football game,” Hicks said.
     Paxton, who was not present for the hearing, filed a brief on Monday opposing the professors’ request for a temporary injunction to block Texas’ new campus-carry law.
     The brief argued the professors had no individual right to academic freedom to assert in the case and that their First Amendment rights were not infringed if students are allowed to carry concealed handguns in their classes.
     “There is no objectively reasonable effect on plaintiffs’ academic freedom by allowing licensed adults to conceal carry handguns in a classroom; any alleged effect on their right to academic freedom is justified by an important government interest,” Paxton said.
     On Thursday, Hicks argued that academic freedom was an individual right and not an institutional matter as claimed by Paxton. He said the professors will have to curtail their classroom discussions if they are forced to allow guns. He noted that the UT officials themselves previously said the campus-carry policies would chill academic freedom.
     Yeakel then asked whether the professors’ anticipation of having to restrict class discussion for fear of guns is a “self-fulfilling prophesy.”
     Mackin argued for the defense that the plaintiffs have not proved the burden on their First Amendment academic freedom claims, since UT campus-carry policy is not a direct regulation of speech based on content.
     She also said the professors’ Equal Protection claims do not hold up because they failed to show UT’s policy is wholly arbitrary. She said the Campus Carry Working Group thoroughly researched the policies and indentified gun-exclusion zones while concluding the safest option was to allow licensees to carry in the classroom.
     “The plaintiffs failed to show irreparable injury. All we have are unsubstantiated and inflammatory opinions,” Mackin said.
     Paxton’s attorney, Prerak Shah, echoed the argument that the professors’ individual right to academic freedom is not violated. Like Mackin, he said UT policy cannot infringe academic freedom because the law is not content-based.
     After a brief rebuttal by the plaintiffs, Yeakel adjourned for the day.
     Both sides have until 5 P.M. on Wednesday to file the rest of their paperwork.
     Yeakel did not indicate how or when he would rule.

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