Gun freedoms and free speech fears

It’s an interesting question, equally so for lawyers and those of us unburdened by legal education: Should one person’s fears — perceived and otherwise — restrict another person’s freedoms?

That seems to be the question pending in the federal courthouse challenge of Texas’ new law that led to public university policies that say licensed, law-abiding, background-checked adults’ freedom to carry concealed handguns does not end where college classrooms begin.

Last week’s hearing on three University of Texas professors’ request for a preliminary injunction allowing them to skirt the law and ban guns in their classrooms drew an overflow crowd at the downtown federal courthouse.

As I joined others in the line to get through courthouse security, I overheard a women in front of me speaking with a woman behind me. It was clear they both oppose campus carry.

“They’re checking for guns,” the woman in front of me told the woman behind me.

“Ironic,” the woman behind me said in noting what she saw as the weirdness in checking for guns at a courthouse where a hearing was about to begin on guns in college classrooms.

I didn’t see weirdness in the moment because I do see why it’d be a bad idea to allow guns into a federal courthouse.

Is it a good idea to allow guns in a college classroom? Much to the chagrin of opponents of the law, that’s not the question U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel is pondering.

Judges don’t decide if laws are good ideas or bad ideas. Judges decide if laws are legal ideas. Voters decide if laws are good ideas or bad ideas. As a voter, I rank campus carry as an unnecessary idea, one we all hope will prove inconsequential. But I do lean heavily toward not restricting the behavior of the law-abiding because of potential actions by the law-breaking.

The core question raised by the UT professors is whether their free speech rights are unfairly impinged upon by their fear of heretofore law-abiding adults carrying concealed handguns to class. The plaintiffs’ argument is that they'll have to rein in free-wheeling discussion of controversial topics because said conversation might lead to classroom gun play.

At the hearing, Yeakel did not tip his hand on how he might rule. My ears perked up, however, when he asked if the professors’ concerns might be “in the nature of a self-fulling prophecy.”

Attorney Renea Hicks, representing the professors, pushed back against that notion, telling Yeakel that the curtailing of open discussion because of the possible presence of guns “is not far-fetched and it is the inevitable outcome.”

At last week’s hearing, Texas Assistant Attorney General Anne Marie Mackin argued in closing that the profs’ “allegations of chill (on free speech) are not objectively reasonable but instead are rooted in assumptions and prejudices.”

We all drift through life with assumptions and prejudices. Should my assumptions and prejudices (which drive my to-date unsuccessful push for a ban on alcoholic beverages) restrict the activities of law-abiding citizens? Yes, mine should, but yours shouldn’t. That, of course, is nonsense.

Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. Email: kherman(at)statesman.com.