Commentary

Guns on Campus Have Already Curtailed Free Speech

October 27, 2014

Earlier this month, the feminist and media critic Anita Sarkeesian was scheduled to speak to students on the campus of Utah State University. The day before her talk, emails were sent to staff and faculty threatening violence if Sarkeesian was allowed to proceed. The threats were fairly general: Sarkeesian and all the feminists in the audience were the targets. But they were also exceptionally charged, promising "the deadliest school shooting in American history."

Administrators and public-safety officials met with Sarkeesian and made plans to increase security. However, once Sarkeesian learned that Utah State could not guarantee a gun-free audience because state law allows concealed weapons on college campuses, she, understandably, canceled her appearance. In that decision, we witnessed one of the first clear examples of how laws allowing concealed weapons on a college campus can thwart academic freedom and First Amendment rights to free speech.

Until then, faculty members might have been able to articulate ways in which they had censored themselves in their classrooms because of gun laws, but it would have been more difficult to point to an actual moment where the presence of guns on a college campus curtailed free speech. Now we have that moment.

Perhaps it was fitting that this event unfolded on a Utah campus. After all, Utah was the first state to pass legislation allowing individuals to carry concealed weapons on a college campus. More to the point, Utah is now the only state in the nation that specifically names colleges and universities as nonexempt from this law. When the law was passed in 2004, Utah was the only state that allowed guns on campuses; now seven states do. Twenty-three others leave the decision to each college or university, and the other 20 specifically prohibit concealed firearms on college campuses.

Nationally, the trend is toward an increased number of states drafting and passing legislation that furthers the presence of guns in classrooms, residence halls, and at campus events. So far this year, legislators in 14 states have introduced language allowing concealed weapons on campuses. Faculty members, administrators, even public-safety officials may say that they don’t "want" guns on their campus, but the decision most often is not theirs to make. State legislators across the country are regulating campus culture, and in those decisions they are tying the hands of university officials, threatening academic freedom, and, ultimately, diluting the education of students.

The movement to pass legislation making concealed carry possible on college campuses found stronger wings in 2008 when the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment protected an individual’s right to bear arms. Previously, the amendment had been interpreted more broadly to sanction arms in the protection of state or national interests. The impact of this decision can be seen in the recent and sharp increase of states that allow guns on campuses. In 2011 one state permitted concealed weapons on campus. Between 2011 and 2012, state legislators introduced at least 34 bills to allow concealed carry.

The consequences of this trend are clear. As made visible in the Sarkeesian event, free speech is placed in peril at college campuses that allow concealed weapons. Less visible are the ways that individual faculty members censor themselves. They may choose to omit course material or change course content because of a perceived threat; unconsciously alter course content without fully realizing they are responding to the presence of guns; or retire early because they are hesitant to teach at a campus that permits guns. Speakers may decline to talk at colleges that cannot guarantee a gun-free venue. Finally, colleges may be reluctant to challenge state legislators on gun policies for fear that future funding might be reduced.

And, of course, the most damning consequence of all: Students receive a less expansive education. If they attend a college that allows guns they could easily be receiving a less challenging, less provocative, less varied experience. Case in point: Our students were deprived of the chance to hear Anita Sarkeesian talk. In a state where gender roles are, for the large part, entrenched and traditional, our students lost the opportunity to hear a woman questioning the roles and possibilities that exist for both men and women.

Utah may have provided a clear example of how guns on campus threaten the mission of higher education, but this situation could have occurred almost anywhere. If Sarkeesian had been speaking at the University of Colorado, for example, or the University of Mississippi, administrators’ hands would have been bound in the same way. It is a mistake to think that such a thing could only happen in Utah, or the West, or a red state. This is a national concern.

Given the current trends across the country, professors who want to teach without guns in their classrooms might despair. But that despair would be premature. What is perhaps less known about the 2008 Supreme Court decision is the justices’ clear attempts to allow for reasonable restrictions. In his majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia writes that the court’s decision "should not be taken to cast doubt on … laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools or government buildings."

The Supreme Court appears to understand the necessity of keeping colleges, among other places, free of guns. Given its belief in the reasonable restrictions of the Second Amendment, it is possible that a college could mount a legal battle. Of course, the fact that the college would be opposing the very entities that fund it makes such a move risky. Short of that, colleges could work with their legislators to add narrow exceptions to the legislation. They could create "sensitive places" within the campus. The University of Wisconsin already has a policy allowing certain buildings to be designated gun free. A campus where classrooms, residence halls, and large public events are free of guns would be a step in the right direction.

In making these arguments to legislators it is essential to keep the focus on students. Few lawmakers would openly support the reduction and dilution of a student’s college experience. Our future depends on graduates with diverse, expansive, and well-rounded experiences. And if the presence of guns on college campuses limits that exposure, it then limits that future.

There may, though, be a silver lining. Discussions have been robust on our campus since Sarkeesian’s decision to cancel her appearance. Faculty and students are more aware of Utah’s gun laws and how they can restrict what happens on campus. My hope is that faculty members at other universities will not wait for a similar event to begin those discussions. We owe it to our students to maintain a vibrant and stimulating campus culture.

Jennifer Sinor is a professor of English at Utah State University.