A divided Florida appeals court ruled Tuesday that public colleges and universities -- except in limited circumstances -- lack the legal right to regulate gun possession on campus.
The ruling came in a case involving a rule at the University of North Florida banning students from keeping guns in their cars. But the appeals court went beyond that rule (which it rejected) to speak more generally to the right of public colleges and universities to limit gun possession on campus, as local news media indicated they do. Under Florida's Constitution, the appeals court found, only the Legislature can make such restrictions, so most rules imposed by public colleges and universities would be invalid.
The university had argued that a specific exemption in Florida law giving school districts the right to regulate guns in their facilities applied to public universities as well. The appeals court rejected that argument, saying that lawmakers specify different types of educational institutions in their regulations, so that references to school districts cannot be assumed to go beyond elementary and secondary education.
The dissent to the ruling said that that the appeals court's ruling leaves public universities "powerless" to deal with guns on campus and that the decision "defies common sense."
The ruling in the case was 12-3 (with several concurring opinions) and could be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, but university officials have not indicated whether they will do so.
The lawsuit was filed by Alexandria Lainez, a student at North Florida who wanted to bring a gun to campus and leave it in her car, along with Florida Carry, a gun rights group. A district judge threw the case out, accepting the university's argument that it was acting within its rights.
But the appeals court ruling flat out rejected the idea that the legislative exemption given to one educational unit applied to another. "The statute clearly grants school districts the power to waive the exception -- not colleges or universities," the ruling said. "UNF attempted to exercise this waiver in adopting the operative regulation; however, UNF is not a 'school district.' "
The decision also rejected the argument that there is an implied right of public universities to regulate otherwise legal conduct by, for example, banning alcohol or tobacco use in certain instances. The decision said that public universities could ban firearms from classrooms or sporting events, but not beyond that -- and that limits couldn't apply to those going to class or other events.
Consuming alcohol, the appeals court ruled, is not a right equivalent to having a gun. "[R}estricting recreational activities is a far cry from restricting a fundamental, constitutional right to keep and bear arms for self-defense," the ruling said.
The dissent characterized the decision as a major erosion of the rights of public universities. "State universities have independent constitutional authority to adopt rules and regulations governing the conduct of their students. Because the regulation at issue in this case falls directly within the scope of that authority, it is not subject to legislative preemption," the dissent said. "No one would doubt that the university has the power to prohibit a student from smoking in a dormitory or drinking an alcoholic beverage on campus even though smoking and drinking may be perfectly lawful in other circumstances.
"Nor would anyone doubt that a university professor has the power to stop a student from delivering an uninvited religious speech in the middle of a class even though the student would have a First Amendment right to make the same speech at another time and in another place."
Further, the dissent said that the appeals court was barring public universities from doing what many rely on them to do. "I believe that the University of North Florida had not only a right, but also a duty to adopt regulations such as the one before the court. It is fair to assume that most parents expect state universities to take reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of their daughters and sons while they are in school," the dissent said. "This regulation was plainly designed as a safety measure."
Added the dissent: "Whether it succeeds in that goal is, of course, debatable. Some would argue that the best way to keep students safe on campus is to allow them to be armed, while others would argue that the best way to ensure their safety is to prohibit guns on campus. But the debate on the merits of the policy is beside the point. We are dealing here only with the authority to adopt the regulation, not the wisdom of the regulation. If the university concludes that the best way to protect students is to prohibit guns on campus, it is not for the Legislature or the courts to interfere with that judgment."
In an interview with First Coast News ABC, Lainez said, "As a single mom, I do travel from school and I feel that it's important for myself and many other students who are also concealed weapons license holders to be able to carry our guns when we go to school."
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