(CN) - Tarrant County College violated students' rights by barring them from wearing empty gun holsters to protest gun restrictions that allegedly block them from preventing another Virginia Tech massacre, a federal judge in Fort Worth ruled.
Clayton Smith and John Schwertz Jr. are members of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC), a national organization formed in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings that left 33 dead, including the 23-year-old gunman.
Tarrant County College refused to let the group hold an "empty-holster protest," in which SCCC members planned to wear empty holsters to symbolize the fact that they're unarmed and potentially defenseless against a gunman like the Virginia Tech shooter. Smith and Schwertz also wanted to hand out leaflets and talk to other students about their views.
But the college policy at the time required them to request to use a "free-speech zone" at least 24 hours before the protest.
U.S. District Judge Terry Means granted Smith and Schwertz a temporary restraining order, concluding that the permit system constituted an impermissible prior restraint on free speech.
Means ruled that the college can't deny SCCC members access to public forums such as sidewalks, streets and open common areas, but he stopped short of allowing Smith and Schwertz to wear empty holsters in classrooms. Means noted that classrooms are not traditionally viewed as public forums.
College officials responded by revising the student handbook and college policy manual to eliminate the free-speech zone and permit system.
But the revisions didn't go far enough, according to Smith and Schwertz, who argued that the updated policies continued to violate their First Amendment rights.
Judge Means dismissed many of their claims for lack of jurisdiction, because the students failed to show how they were injured by the policies. However, the judge emphasized that this decision doesn't mean the challenged provisions aren't "constitutionally suspect."
"To the contrary, some seem quite broad and potentially susceptible to challenge for overbreadth or vagueness."
And on the key issue of empty-holster protests, Judge Means said school officials failed to justify their ban on such protests.
"[T]here was no evidence linking empty-holster protests to an increased likelihood of a shooting on campus," Means wrote.
School administrators said they feared that a student would "show up on campus with a gun in the holster."
Means found the fear unfounded. "[I]f anything, that would be the exact opposite effect of the empty-holster protest. SCCC members wear empty holsters to highlight the fact that they are not
armed," he wrote (original emphasis).
"And there is simply no logical force behind such a fear; if a person wished to bring a firearm onto campus undetected, he likely would not wear it in a holster, exposed for all to see."
The judge permanently barred the Tarrant County College District and its officials from banning empty-holster protests and from enforcing a "co-sponsorship" provision of the handbook that bars student speech on campus streets, sidewalks, lawns and plazas.