How Guns Could Censor College Classrooms

Campus-carry laws, like the one going into effect in Texas, pose a profound threat to free speech.

Matthieu Spohn / ès / Corbis

“Be careful discussing sensitive topics.” “Drop certain topics from your curriculum.” “[Don’t] ‘go there’ if you sense anger.”

A faculty working group at the University of Houston recently offered these recommendations to professors preparing for Texas’s new campus-carry law, set to take effect August 1. The situation to which these recommendations are alluding—gun violence in response to controversial or otherwise difficult classroom discussions—is at this point only a hypothetical worst-case scenario. But critics of the legislation are still appalled: To abide by the law, and keep everyone safe in classrooms with armed students, faculty may ultimately have to resort to self-censorship.

Proponents of the legislation, which allows individuals with concealed-carry permits to possess firearms on public-university campuses, argue that fears surrounding campus carry are overblown. In the eight states that have already enacted such a law, none of the predicted nightmares have taken place—students drawing their weapons on professors who fail them, for example, or students firing on one another in heated classroom arguments. In fact, campus-carry supporters maintain that the law will keep the peace, enabling students and faculty to defend themselves effectively, and deter would-be shooters. So long as universities are gun-free zones, gun-rights advocates argue, they are well-advertised targets for prospective attackers.

But the potential benefits of the law are slight, and dubious at best. It turns out, for example, there were armed students at Umpqua Community College in Oregon on the day of its shooting last fall. Their presence did not deter the attack, nor did they halt it; the students wisely decided not to jump into the fray for fear it would compound the mayhem.

By contrast, campus carry’s potential for harm is quite real. Its principal threat is less than obvious, however; its impact may not be physically manifest at all. I’m counting its cost in terms of what is lost in the classroom—and it is a loss that may be deeply damaging to the country’s democracy.

This can be gleaned from the faculty concerns at the University of Houston. In short, they argued that guns in the classroom pose an intolerable threat to free speech. It’s unclear whether campus carry does and will in fact undermine the freedom of expression, but if there’s one place in society where the citizenry must not tolerate such threats, it’s the college classroom. 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.

In my philosophy and politics classes, for example, I—like peers in my field—routinely broach contentious issues: topics such as structural racism, abortion, and gun rights (the most contentious of them all). Few young adults have put significant thought into these kinds of issues; they must experiment with them to understand them properly and deeply, and to develop mature and critical views. It’s important to ensure that students feel free to explore their thoughts and express them—frankly—so they can experiment and develop. They must feel free to push their intellectual limits, and entertain lines of argument that are controversial, probably offensive to some.

It is a goal, an often elusive ideal, that the college classroom be that space where the circulation and contest of ideas are freewheeling and dynamic, as ideas are subjected to the close inspection of logic, and measured in the light of history and personal experience. This can—and many will say should—be a raucous affair on occasion.

It seems that campus carry stands opposed to these pedagogical goals. Will guns encourage speech and invite people to discussion and debate in the classroom? The reality could be quite to the contrary: Guns could have a chastening effect. If students suspect that neighbors in the classroom may be armed, this may make them less inclined to engage them in frank and open discussion, on potentially uncomfortable or challenging topics. Guns speak; they send a message, which, gun owners and gun rights advocates readily admit, is something like this: Don’t mess with me—be careful—I am armed; I know how to use my weapon, and am prepared to do so if need be. Thanks to Stand Your Ground, they may draw their weapons on merely perceived threats.

Stand Your Ground laws protect citizens from prosecution in cases where they feel threatened in public, and fire their weapons. Predictably, the legislation has spawned numerous controversies, and several tragedies, across the country. Gun owners have shot and killed unarmed citizens—and sought Stand Your Ground protections—in cases in which they misjudged or overestimated the threats before them. Or the law emboldened them to wield their weapons when they were just plain angry. In 2014, a Montana man invoked Stand Your Ground after he shot and killed an unarmed German exchange student trespassing in his garage. That same year, Cyle Quadlin killed an unarmed man with whom he argued in an Arizona Walmart; he drew his weapon when he felt he was losing the fight, and police accepted his plea of self-defense. These are just two of many similar controversies stemming from the law.

What does Stand Your Ground tell students soon to enter armed classrooms? It may tell them to be wary around those who are armed, or possibly armed, for fear of seeming threatening. Of course, no one knows precisely what is threatening to whom, which could mean the message is more open-ended, and potentially devastating: Curtail your behavior in general—rein it in; watch what you say, to whom, and how. In fact, it may even send the message that it’s best to approach and engage others as little as possible.

One University of Houston professor, Maria Gonzalez, expressed her concerns over campus carry in the context of her own classes, which cover Marxist and Queer Theory. In so doing, she invoked the added mission universities have to provide safe harbor for ideas that may be unpopular in society at large, ideas that are radical to some. This is a key reason why universities offer tenure to faculty: to protect academic freedom and defend against censorship. Expansions of civil rights are almost always deeply unpopular at first; this was the case in the fight for women’s rights, suffrage for African Americans, and marriage equality for gays and lesbians. Universities play a key role in early discussions about expanding these rights: Radical ideas must be given a hearing, and require a space to be vetted and honed before emerging into the culture at large, and ultimately the political stage.

I fear that campus carry will make students and faculty less inclined to engage in the critical intellectual work that must take place in the classroom, the courageous inquiry and experimentation American democracy requires. As Gonzalez suggests, classes devoted to highly controversial topics could be the most vulnerable in this respect. How many students are going to risk uncomfortable and potentially intrusive lines of inquiry about gender identity, for example, in conservative Texas—when some of their conservative peers may well be armed? Why even go there, if you are an instructor, and can’t hope to have a productive or illuminating conversation?

It’s impossible to measure the cost of campus carry. But I wager that the cost will be evidenced in the mounting silence on college campuses, and the trepidation, timidity, and lack of creativity among new generations of voters. American democracy will be the poorer for it.