Lisa Moore, Mia Carter and Jennifer Glass, professors at the University of Texas at Austin, had their day in court recently. They lost.
The professors had petitioned for an exemption from Texas’ Senate Bill 11, which permits concealed carry license holders to bring firearms into most locations at public colleges and universities in Texas, including into classrooms and labs.
Moore, Carter and Glass argued that the presence of firearms in the classroom has a “chilling effect” on classroom discussions, which sometimes involve controversial, emotional subjects.
The ruling on the case, issued in district court on July 6, notes that “One professor avers in an affidavit that the ‘possibility of the presence of concealed weapons in a classroom impedes my and other professors’ ability to create a daring, intellectually active, mutually supportive, and engaged community of thinkers.’ “
But Judge Lee Yeakel found that the “Plaintiffs present no concrete evidence to substantiate their fears, but instead rest on ‘mere conjecture about possible…actions.’ “
Adding insult to injury, the judge suggested that the professors, themselves, were to blame: “… the chilling effect appears to arise from the Plaintiffs’ subjective belief that a person may be more likely to cause harm to a professor or student as the result of the law and policy.”
He blames any dampening of classroom discussions on the professors’ “self-imposed censoring” caused by their own fears.
In other words, the professors’ own fantasies about threats from concealed carry license holders are to blame. Which is just what you would expect from effete liberal academics at a large liberal university. And women, at that!
Still, my 30-plus years of teaching in college classrooms suggest that these professors’ concerns are driven by more than hysteria.
I teach basic courses, mostly freshman composition. But to write is to engage with ideas, which means that even in my humble classes students sometimes talk about ideas that are closely connected to their emotions and dearly held beliefs. Their responses to challenges to their ideas aren’t always predictable.
Furthermore, a college classroom can be a place of considerable stress and tension. Students are required to perform under pressure and sometimes confront challenges that test their psychological and emotional resources. And at the end of every semester, professors Moore, Carter and Glass must make decisions about their students’ performances that have impacts — on students’ sense of self-worth, as well as their finances — that are much greater than they might face in, say, small claims court.
Emotions are involved and the stakes are higher than one thinks. I suspect that Judge Yeakel wouldn’t relish making judgments in his courtroom among plaintiffs and defendants who were carrying weapons.
Besides, if professors Moore, Carter and Glass are fantasizing about the dangers of students carrying weapons into class, other kinds of fantasies are at work here, as well. Concealed carry license holders are not supposed to reveal when they’re carrying firearms, but generally my students are far from shy about revealing their possession of a license.
And I suspect that a small percentage — there’s no way of knowing how small — of students and teachers will find it difficult to keep the presence of a weapon in the classroom a secret. For many, the point of a weapon is to project power. There are more than a few George Zimmermans among us, fantasists who dream of using a weapon in heroic defense of their classmates.
But the fact that even trained peace officers — much less untrained students — have trouble maintaining fire discipline is one of the reasons administrators, faculty and many law enforcement agencies in Texas strongly resisted concealed carry on college campuses.
Then there’s the ultimate firearms fantasy: Gun policy in our nation is driven by the National Rifle Association and firearms manufacturers. They imagine an extremely dangerous world in which good people must have guns to resist bad people. You simply cannot be safe without a weapon.
And if that vision of culture can be forced into classrooms at a large, putatively liberal state university, even at the expense of “daring, intellectually active” thinking, well, mission accomplished.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.