With the controversial campus carry law set to take effect in August, Nobel laureate and UT physics professor Steven Weinberg says he will ban guns in his classroom beginning in the fall semester. Despite the fact that Weinberg might be breaking the law in doing so, it is worth considering whether the law violates free speech protections provided by the first amendment.
Both Student Government and the Faculty Council passed resolutions opposing campus carry legislation, and UT Chancellor William McRaven echoed their opposition. Still, the working group policy recommendations submitted to President Gregory Fenves in December did not include a ban on guns in classrooms.
Rachel Osterloh, president of the Senate of College Councils and a student representative in the working group charged with recommending implementation policies for campus carry, said many students at UT were uncomfortable with prospect of guns anywhere on campus, let alone in classroom.
“UT students strongly pushed back against Senate Bill 11,” Osterloh said. “We rallied and organized. The vast majority of students voiced our concerns about campus carry.”
Despite those concerns, students and faculty may soon face the reality of guns in classrooms.
UT law professor Steven Goode, who chaired the working group, said that bans such as Weinberg’s would violate the law. So even among those who oppose campus carry, some will ask whether Weinberg is justified in openly defying the law, especially if the university ends up adopting the working group recommendations.
But there is a bigger question to ask than whether Weinberg’s actions would violate the law: whether the law itself violates the Constitution. Weinberg and others argue it does, and for good reason.
It is well established that the First Amendment does not protect all forms of speech. Weinberg cannot incite students to overthrow the government in his lectures, and not just because it has nothing to do with theoretical physics. However, the campus carry law limits the kind of speech he can engage in within the parameters of the First Amendment.
Linguistics professor Stephen Wechsler, a member of the organization Gun-Free UT, explains how guns discourage free speech.
“It puts a damper on open discussion if the person you disagree with is carrying a loaded weapon,” Wechsler said.
A student should only be limited in a discussion by what they have to contribute, and a teacher only by what is relevant to the class. Guns functionally place new limits on what a student will feel safe saying. Weinberg justification for keeping guns out of his classroom, even if the law says he cannot, is that guns make it impossible for students and teachers to speak freely.
“Prof. Weinberg argued that we should let the courts decide whether the presence of loaded weapons in a classroom places an undue burden on the teacher's First Amendment rights to free speech,” Wechsler said.
President Fenves has yet to announce implementation policies for the campus carry law. We do not know if the law will allow guns in classrooms. Even if it does, that is no reason for UT students and faculty to accept this uninvited and undemocratic threat to free speech and public safety.
Groves is a government freshman from Dallas. Follow him on Twitter @samgroves.