Use First Amendment Freedoms to Debate Second Amendment Issues

Gene Policinski

Inside the First Amendment

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director

Nobody wants to encourage or invite another campus killing spree like the one in 2007 at Virginia Tech University, in which 32 people died and 17 were wounded.

But does that reasonable concern extend to prohibiting a rally or a flier that promotes the idea of allowing students to carry firearms on campus in self-defense?

You and I may consider the idea of armed undergraduates as either inspired or wacky — but that’s not the First Amendment point, which seems to be lost on at least a few college administrators.

In Pennsylvania, the Associated Press reported, Community College of Allegheny County officials stopped distribution of promotional material for the group Students for Concealed Carry on Campus. In Texas, AP said, Tarrant County College administrators refused to allow an “empty holster” protest on campus — even in the college’s free-speech zone. A spokesman for Tarrant was quoted as saying the holster protest would be “disruptive to the campus environment.”

Allowing a demonstration or a flier advocating guns on campus is not tantamount to approving gun-toting by students (or faculty and staff, for that matter). Rather, it would seem a good starting point for discussion of a serious topic — campus safety — that would permit both advocates and critics of such plans to air their views.

Admittedly, even thinking about Virginia Tech or other such incidents is an exercise in reliving tragedy and sorrow. We all would prefer that university students spend their time learning and thinking about careers and a host of other pleasant life experiences, now and ahead.

But the reality is that school shootings, high school and college, have occurred with distressing frequency in recent decades. Improved security on campuses, new ID procedures, better and faster lockdown plans and even high-tech solutions to notifying college communities of dangerous situations are all ways to prevent or limit the next such criminal attack. Some have proposed better mental-health evaluations for troubled students, including tying such exams to gun-permit laws.

Yes, realistic and blunt discussions may well make some students, professors or staff uncomfortable or uneasy. But such sessions would provide an opportunity for mainstream ideas to be dissected along with novel and perhaps unsettling ideas like “campus carry.”

Debate over allowing concealed weapons in thus-far-off-limits public situations isn’t confined to the campus. In Tennessee, Gov. Phil Bredesen recently vetoed a bill that would have allowed gun owners with permits to carry their weapons into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. But even Bredesen admits he wouldn’t be surprised if the Legislature overrode him.

The Tennessee confrontation over guns in bars and restaurants puts the battle between gun regulators and gun advocates in the proper arena — discussion about the safety of the conduct, not suppression of the argument.

Under the First Amendment, we should be able to talk, promote, encourage, debate, discuss or oppose virtually any idea and its merits and demerits.

As Supreme Court justices and First Amendment scholars have reminded us repeatedly, such free and open debate not only places differing views in the public marketplace of ideas, but also may well encourage those opposed to make their own stand in response.

If an intellectual, informed exchange of ideas in search of a solution and common ground should find a welcoming atmosphere anywhere in our society, it would seem to be at colleges and universities.

Critics, particularly conservatives, say such a level debating ground at many universities long ago fell victim to political correctness and a singular, liberal point of view. I can’t settle that ongoing dispute and won’t try. But just on the “campus carry” demonstration issue, here’s my solution: Students should be able to have a full, vigorous and collegial discussion of their Second Amendment rights by exercising their First Amendment freedoms.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].