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Should Texas profs have a say over guns in their classrooms?

Three professors have sued for the right to ban guns in their own classrooms, as a new campus concealed carry law takes effect at public universities in Texas amid a debate over safety and free speech.  

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    University of Texas at Austin anthropology professor Pauline Strong posts a sign prohibiting guns at her office on Monday, the first day of the state's new campus concealed carry law. Three professors have sued the university for the right to forbid concealed carry in their classrooms, as a new campus carry law goes into effect.
    Jay Jenner/Austin American-Statesman/AP
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Texas' controversial campus concealed carry law went into effect on August 1, requiring public institutions to allow for the concealed carry of firearms in classrooms. Most private, universities, however, have chosen to opt out: just one out of 38 institutions on a list compiled by The Texas Tribune will allow full concealed carry, with many college presidents hinting that guns on campus will make students, and their freedom of speech, less safe.

While some students say carrying a weapon makes them feel safer, many professors at the University of Texas (UT) are concerned. And three of them, faculty at the university's Austin campus, have sued the institution over the right to forbid guns in their specific classrooms. 

Sociology professor Jennifer Lynn Glass, creative writing professor Lisa Moore, and English professor Mia Carter have filed a lawsuit against the Texas attorney general, the university president, and the university's board of regents, arguing that the new concealed carry laws will stifle discussion and risk putting students in danger. Their suit also argues that the new law is not protected by the Second Amendment, and violates the equal protection clause, saying the Constitution protects a "well regulated militia" and that the current concealed carry requirements do not impose "proper discipline and training." 

The three professors all teach classes on controversial topics, including women's reproductive rights and race, gender and LGBT issues. All three say they have previously felt threatened or intimidated by students.

Their fear that guns could heighten tensions on campus, particularly when discussing controversial issues in the classroom, have been echoed by many other professors and campus leaders. Of private institutions, which can opt out of the law, only one, Amberton University in Garland, has said it will fully comply with the campus carry law, according to the Tribune. The school does not accept students under age 21.

"Amberton has no campus housing, no sporting events, no social clubs, and no dining facilities. The consumption of alcohol is prohibited on campus as is the use of illegal drugs," the school says in a statement. "Considering the unique nature of the Amberton student and the campus environment, Amberton University will comply with Senate Bill 11 allowing individuals with valid handgun licenses to carry their concealed handguns onto the Amberton campuses and premises."

Students in support of the law say it could have a positive impact on safety, if any. "There's no reason why campus should be this black hole for self-defense and protecting ourselves," Madison Yandell, the president of UT Austin's College Republican group, said at a campus rally this fall. "You don't know if somebody is carrying illegally now, so there isn’t going to be any difference as it becomes a law next year."

However, several college presidents have suggested that more guns in campus buildings would put students, and their learning, at risk. 

"University leadership believes concealed handguns on campus present significant concerns and are not conducive to a positive learning environment," said Donald Christian, the president of Concordia University, according to the Tribune. 

In a March essay for The Atlantic, Firmin Debrabander, a professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College Art, argued that concealed carry on college campuses could be "deeply damaging to the country’s democracy."

"The college classroom is meant to be a special space where all manner of ideas are aired, considered, and debated, and differences negotiated – through speech and argument – with no fear of violent recrimination, no fear of inciting angry students to draw their guns," Dr. Debrabander wrote. 

On Tuesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton dismissed the lawsuit as "frivolous."

"I'm confident it will be dismissed because the Legislature passed a constitutionally sound law," he said. 

Others have defended the campus carry law on safety grounds, and countered that concealed firearms do not limit the freedom of speech.

"We all know people have guns in Texas, and people still speak freely," Jordan Cope, a junior at UT Austin, told the Daily Texan. "It is a bit of an exaggeration that we can't speak about certain topics in class because someone may have a gun." 

Students for Concealed Carry, a gun-rights advocacy group which has fought for the legislation, also dismissed the free speech argument. The group's website says "there is little or no evidence that it negatively impacts free speech in the places where it’s allowed," noting that concealed carry is allowed on more than 100 college campuses and several state capitals. 

In June 2015, a poll from UT and the Tribune found that 37 percent of respondents said concealed handguns should be prohibited on campuses. 26 percent said they should be allowed in approved places, and 25 percent said they should be allowed anywhere. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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