SHOOTING OFF YOUR FACE WON'T HELP FREE SPEECH - NARA - 515409 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
By Michael LaBossiere
While a concealed weapon permit allows a person to carry a gun many places, the campuses of public universities have generally been gun-free areas. My adopted state of Florida has been wrangling with a bill to allow concealed carry on campus and Texas recently passed such a bill into law.
The faculty of the University of Houston met to discuss this issue and express concern about its impact. A slide from a faculty meeting about the law suggests that faculty “be careful in discussing sensitive topics”, “drop certain topics from your curriculum”, “not ‘go there’ if you sense anger”, “limit student access off hours, go to appointment-only office hours , and only meet 'that student' in controlled circumstances.”
What is rather striking about this slide is that the first three suggestions are identical to limits imposed by what detractors call “political correctness” and there are also similarities to recommendations about trigger warnings. This provides the grounds for the discussion to follow in which I consider limits of free speech and academic freedom.
This sort of reasoning assumes that students would be harmed without such restrictions and that their right not to be harmed exceeds the imposition on the rights of the professors (and other students who might gain value from such subjects and discussions).
A similar sort of argument can be made in the case of concealed weapons. The reasoning is, presumably, that an armed student might be provoked to violence by what happens in class and thus hurt other students. As such, for the safety of students, professors should accept restrictions on their freedoms.
This reasoning assumes that armed students pose a threat and are easily provoked to violence—a factual matter that will be discussed later. It also assumes that the risk of harm to the students by a fellow student outweighs the rights of free expression and academic freedom (on the part of both professors and students).
Somewhat ironically, the attitude expressed in the slides suggests that there will be a hostile environment for gun owners—something I have experienced. Being from rural Maine, I learned to shoot as soon as I could hold a gun and spent much of my youth hunting and fishing. While many colleagues do not take issue with this, I have run into some general hostility towards guns and hunting. I have had fellow professors say “you are not stupid, so how can you like guns?” and “you seem like such a decent person, how could you have ever gone hunting” (often said between bites of a burger). While being a gun owner is a matter of owning a gun, there is also a culture that includes guns—one I grew up in and remain a part of. Hostility towards people because they belong to such a culture seems comparable to hostility towards other aspects of culture—like being hostile towards Muslims or towards men who elect to wear traditional female clothing.
It might be replied that gun culture is not worthy of the same tolerance as other cultures—which is, of course, what people who hate those other cultures say about them. It might also be argued that the intent is not to be intolerant towards people who have guns as part of their culture, but to protect students from the dangers presented by such irrational and violence prone people.
Another way to justify limiting academic freedom and free speech is on practical or pragmatic grounds. In the case of political sensitivity, professors might decide that it is not worth the hassle, the risk of law suits, the risk of trouble with administrators and the risk of becoming a news item. As such, the judgment to voluntarily restrict one’s freedom would be an assessment of the practical gains and harms, with the evaluation being that the pragmatic choice is to run a safe class. This, of course, assumes that the practical harms outweigh the practical benefits—an assessment that will certainly vary greatly depending on the circumstances.
The same justification can be used in the case of armed students. The idea is that professors might decide on purely pragmatic grounds that risking provoking an armed student is not worth it—this would not be a moral assessment, simply a pragmatic decision aimed at having a bullet free day in the classroom.
This, of course, assumes that a pragmatic assessment of the risk shows that the best practical choice is to focus on safety.
A final way to justify restricting academic freedom and freedom of expression is a moral argument that is based on the potential harm to the professor. In the case of political sensitivity, there is considerable concern about the damage that a professor can suffer if she is not careful to restrict her freedom. While privacy concerns preclude going into details, I have had colleagues in the professor express considerable terror at the prospect that a blog they write for might post a controversial piece. The worry was that their careers would be damaged in terms of keeping or finding employment. While such fear might be unfounded, it is quite real and certainly provides a moral foundation for self-censoring: the professor must restrict her freedom to avoid doing moral harm to herself. As with any such assessment, the risk of harm and the extent of the harm needs to be considered. As noted above, this does seem to be a very real fear today.
In the case of guns, the worry is that a professor could cause herself harm by provoking gun violence on the part of a student. The moral foundation for self-censorship is the same as above: the professor must restrict her freedom to avoid doing moral harm to herself.
As was the case with career damage, a professor would need to consider the risk of provoking a student to gun violence and perhaps the moral choice would be to choose safety over the risk. This leads to the factual matter of the extent of the risk.
The fear expressed by some about concealed carry on campus seems to be based on an assumption that it presents a significant risk to professors. However, it is not clear that this is the case. First, the law only allows those with permits to bring their guns on campus. Threatening people and shooting people remain illegal. If someone is willing to break the law regarding threatening or murder, presumably they would also be willing to break a law forbidding guns on campus. As such, there does not seem to be a significant increase in risk because of allowing concealed carry on campus.
Second, campuses do not (in general) have security checks for guns. It would be one thing if the law disbanded existing security screening to enter campus—this would increase the risk of guns on campus. This law just allows law-abiding citizens to legally bring a gun on campus and has no effect on how easy or hard it is for someone to bring a gun on campus with the intent to commit violence. As such, campuses would be about as safe as ever.
It might be objected that a person will legally bring a gun to class or the professor’s office, be provoked to violence and act on this provocation only because she has a gun (and would not use her hands, a knife or a chair). Thus, the danger is great enough to warrant professors to self-censor.
One reply to this is to note that violence by students against professors is rather rare and allowing guns on campus would not seem to increase the violent tendencies of students. It could, of course, happen—but a student could also decide to run over a professor with a car and this possibility does not justify banning cars from campus. The fear that a student carrying a weapon legally will murder a professor after being provoked in class or in the office seems analogous to the fear that Muslim refugees will commit terrorists in the United States. While it could happen, the fear is overblown and does not seem to justify imposing restrictions. As such, while free expression combined with legal campus carry does entail a non-zero risk, the risk is so low that self-censorship seems unwarranted.