Gun Rights vs. College Rights

State Supreme Court says U. of Utah can't bar firearms, setting up federal court battle on academic freedom and autonomy.
September 11, 2006

In a ruling that legal experts say could threaten the autonomy of public universities and the safety of their students, the Utah Supreme Court ruled Friday that the University of Utah cannot bar guns from its campus.

The university says that the ban will remain in effect, pending a federal court battle, where academic freedom arguments based on the the U.S. Constitution will be raised. Nonetheless, Friday's ruling angered college leaders, who saw it as a terrible precedent. "This is a violation of law and common sense," said Sheldon E. Steinbach, vice president and general counsel of the American Council on Education, which is backing the university in the case. "What's it going to take for those representatives in Utah to understand? Will they only be moved after there has been an unfortunate incident involving a gun-slinging student?"

Utah's attorney general, meanwhile, praised the ruling as "a victory for the rule of law," and he was joined by Utah lawmakers in pledging to fight for the right of students and others to bring guns on campus.

Banning firearms from campuses is a widespread policy -- and it doesn't generally vary from state to state, even though states have widely differing gun laws. The dispute in Utah dates to 2001, when Mark Shurtleff, the attorney general, issued an opinion finding that the University of Utah's gun ban violated state laws barring state or local entities from enacting restrictions on access to firearms. The university sued in federal court, charging that its academic freedom assured by the First Amendment was being violated, and also stating that Utah lawmakers had given the university considerable autonomy when they created it -- enough to allow the university to set its own gun policy.

A federal judge ordered that the state issues be heard first, in Utah courts, and that set up a series of legal hearings that led to Friday's ruling. In the Utah courts, the main question was whether the Legislature had granted the university so much autonomy that it could bar firearms from campus. In a 4-to-1 ruling, the court found that references to university autonomy were not as strong or conclusive as university officials asserted. Absent specific exemptions in various state laws, the justices said, the university is covered -- and that goes for the ban on restricting firearms.

"Although the university has broad powers, it is not completely autonomous, and it is ultimately subject to legislative oversight.... The Utah Constitution does not grant the university authority to promulgate firearms policies in contravention of legislative enactments, and it is not our place to do so," said the decision. If Utah citizens want their lawmakers to give the university the right to bar firearms, the justices added, they need "to express their dissatisfaction at the ballot box."

Utah legislative leaders have gone out of their way to say that they have no intention of changing the law and that they are annoyed with the university for implying that it wasn't covered by their legislation on guns. John L. Valentine, president of the State Senate, issued a statement about the court ruling in which he said: "I appreciate what this ruling does for the Second Amendment issue but, more importantly, it reaffirms that government by the people, through their elected representatives, is the law of the land. There is really no room for independent islands of authority within state government."

In a dissent, Chief Justice Christine Durham wrote that applying the logic of the decision, "the university may not subject a student to academic discipline for flashing his pistol to a professor in class."

The chief justice said that the majority decision implied that the university only had autonomy over what courses are taught and what may take place in a classroom. Such a definition, she said, is far too narrow, because "a university, by its nature, is more than the sum of its classes." She added that the university's autonomy should generally extend to policies designed to advance its education goals. In this case, she wrote, "the record ... contains extensive evidence that practitioners and experts in higher education are convinced that a no weapons on campus policy is necessary to the educational enterprise."

The logic behind the chief justice's dissent is similar to the argument the University of Utah now plans to take to federal courts. "Our central argument is that within the context of the First Amendment, there is the capacity to control the environment within which the educational dialogue occurs, so we are within our rights to take steps that are central to the free and open debate that you need at a university," said Michael Young, president of the University of Utah, in an interview Friday.

"If you think about what a campus looks like, people live in dorms and all over the place. They are relatively young, coming with varying degrees of maturity, and you are putting them in situations where they are in intellectual and social situations they haven't been in before," Young said. "In that volatile mix, you want to introduce real ideas, and you want those ideas debated and thought about. But you also want to eliminate any kind of possible physical intimidation."

He added that in the normal give and take of campus life, "things are different if you think the person you are talking to might be packing."

Utah is a state where many people do have firearms legally, Young said, and without the university's rule, many students would probably bring guns to dormitories and campus events.

Young stressed that the university was not anti-gun or trying to make any sort of political statement. The university has a highly competitive pistol team and a Reserve Officers Training Corp unit, he noted.

Steinbach of the American Council on Education agreed that the issue is university autonomy, not guns. And he said that there are real safety issues at stake for any campus leader. He noted that even if a given student knew about gun safety, there was no reason to believe others in a dormitory would know. And given the problems colleges already have with drunk students making poor choices, Steinbach said, adding guns to the mix in dormitories would invite trouble.

From a legal standpoint, Steinbach said that the authority for a university to control the educational environment was defined in constitutional terms in 1957 when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter defined four elements of academic freedom: “the freedom of an institution to decide who may attend, who may teach, what may be taught and how it shall be taught.” Steinbach said that "inherent in that definition" is the ability of universities "to define the educational environment."

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