Lawyers for three University of Texas professors who want to prohibit concealed handguns in their classrooms will try to revive their lawsuit seeking that result during oral arguments Wednesday before federal appeals judges in New Orleans.
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of Austin denied a request in August 2016 for a preliminary injunction that would have allowed Jennifer Lynn Glass, Lisa Moore and Mia Carter to declare their classrooms gun-free zones.
Yeakel said he found no precedent for the professors’ argument that they have a right of academic freedom under the First Amendment so broad that it overrides decisions of the Legislature and the university that employs them. In July 2017, he dismissed the case, ruling that the plaintiffs lack standing to assert their constitutional claims.
The three women appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the lower court failed to consider claims that their rights under the Second Amendment and the Constitution’s equal protection clause have been impinged. They want the appeals court to rule that they have standing to present those claims and to send the case back to the district court for further proceedings.
Court papers filed by the professors’ lawyers summarized their case this way: “(i) under the First Amendment, claiming that their right to academic freedom would be chilled; (ii) under the Second Amendment, claiming that they should not be subjected to the guns-in-the-classroom rule because the state could not demonstrate that carrying guns in Texas is ‘well-regulated’ within the meaning of the amendment’s introductory clause; and (iii) under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, claiming that the distinctions in UT-Austin’s policy between where concealed carry had to be allowed and where it could be disallowed were not rationally drawn.”
The defendants in the case — state Attorney General Ken Paxton, UT President Gregory L. Fenves and UT’s governing board — contend that the three professors don’t have a legal leg to stand on.
State law has allowed holders of concealed handgun licenses to carry such weapons on the grounds of public colleges and universities since 1995. Senate Bill 11, passed in 2015 by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, permits handgun license holders to also carry in campus buildings, subject to rules established by each college president.
Fenves has said that handguns have no place on a college campus, declaring them “contrary to our mission of education and research, which is based on inquiry, free speech, and debate.” But he also has said that he is duty-bound to comply with the law, and in drafting rules for the Austin flagship he concluded that banning guns from classrooms would have the effect of generally prohibiting them on campus, in violation of the law.
The UT president now finds himself part of the state’s full-throated defense of campus carry. Indeed, the defendants’ court papers describe the campus carry law as part of a “thoughtful reformation of the State’s gun laws” by the Legislature.
“Plaintiffs came to federal court to vindicate their inflated conception of the privileged status they hold compared to all other public employees,” the state’s lawyers wrote, “but they failed to bring with them the necessary case or controversy.”