Graduate Students’ Open Letter Expressing Opposition to Firearms in UT Classrooms

An Open Letter Expressing Opposition to Firearms in UT Classrooms
from the Legislative Affairs Committee of the Graduate Student Assembly

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


Dr. Gregory Fenves, President, University of Texas at Austin
Prof. Steven Goode, Chair, Campus Carry Working Group


The Legislative Affairs Committee of the Graduate Student Assembly is participating in an ongoing discussion with graduate students about their concerns with regard to SB11, as passed by the Texas Legislature in the 84th Regular Session.

As part of this discussion, and recognizing the possibility that President Fenves may soon take action to “establish reasonable rules, regulations, or other provisions regarding the carrying of concealed handguns by licensed holders on the campus of the institution or on premises located on the campus of the institution,” as per the language of SB 11, we thought it best to issue this open letter on behalf of concerned graduate students.

We hope that this letter will encourage meaningful discourse, and that this discourse will lead to recommendations which reflect the best interests of our graduate students.  We may also submit a resolution on behalf of graduate students for consideration by the full Graduate Student Assembly at a future date.  However, at this time, this letter reflects only the sentiments of those graduate students who have shared their voice with the Legislative Affairs Committee.

An Open Letter Expressing Opposition to Firearms in UT Classrooms

The Legislative Affairs Committee of the Graduate Student Assembly wants to acknowledge the 1,787 graduate students to date who have signed a public statement affirming their opposition to firearms in UT classrooms.

According to a press release distributed by the organizers of this petition, who are also UT graduate students, the student signers “belong to 132 programs in 18 Colleges and Schools at UT and represent 15.8% of the university’s 11,331 graduate student population.”  The petition began on October 16, 2015, and will remain open for additional signatures until August, 2016.

To date, we have searched for and discovered no graduate student organizations, formal or informal, nor petitions or other instances of students, advocating for firearms in UT classrooms.

We believe it is important to note that 1,787 public voices opposed to firearms in UT classrooms may represent a still larger proportion of students who are not yet aware of the petition, or who prefer not to publicly disclose their position on a contentious political issue.

For these 1,787 students, and the potentially broader group they represent, we believe there is only one acceptable course of action:  President Gregory Fenves must restrict concealed handgun license (CHL) holders from bringing their weapons into UT classrooms.

We recognize that SB11 as passed into law prohibits the President from establishing “provisions that generally prohibit or have the effect of generally prohibiting license holders from carrying concealed handguns on the campus of the institution.”  However, as consistent with guidance from State Rep. Martinez Fischer, who served on the conference committee that set the final language for SB11, we believe that sufficient policy tools are available to meet this requirement while still ensuring that UT classrooms are gun-free.  This is also consistent with the language in SB11, which insists “the president or officer may amend the provisions as necessary for campus safety,” which can be adjusted based on “the uniqueness of the campus environment.”

Lawmakers apply precise language in this bill, and clearly a university “campus” allows a broader definition than a university “classroom”, which is specifically focused on academic buildings when occupied by faculty and students as part of an educational program.  Additionally, it is not unreasonable to consider that part of the “uniqueness” of the campus environment at UT in Austin involves a commitment to gun-free classrooms in order to ensure that we do not “stifle the academic freedom and robust debate that is central to our mission of educating the young men and women of our state and conducting the research that changes lives and the world around us,” as UT System Chancellor William McRaven writes.

While State Sen. Birdwell, the author of SB11, may personally disagree with this unique campus commitment, his recent letter requesting an interpretation of the language of the bill from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton demonstrates that the “meaning and effect of the act” do not clearly prohibit college presidents from declaring classrooms gun-free.  If the law were clear, would Sen. Birdwell feel compelled to pose six open-ended questions?

Sen. Birdwell asserts that these questions “affect the public interest because they would help to clarify the rights of public Colleges […] under the act.”  Additionally, State Sen. Joan Huffman is holding a public hearing on Jan. 26, 2016, to “determine if the current laws regulating the places that handguns can be carried are easily understood.”  For President Fenves to take any action based on Sen. Birdwell’s interpretation of SB11 that violates the current, gun-free classroom environment at UT, without first permitting a full public hearing to address Sen. Birdwell’s questions, would be to summarily disregard the best interests of a significant proportion of our graduate student community.

Furthermore, while we respect their opinions, Sen. Birdwell, Sen. Huffman, and Attorney General Paxton do not have the legal authority to interpret SB11 on behalf of UT, as the Austin American-Statesman aptly notes “attorney general opinions are nonbinding interpretations of law by agency attorneys.”  President Fenves alone holds the power to interpret SB11 in the best interests of UT, and our graduate students specifically.

If there are disagreements over President Fenves’ interpretation of SB11, then these are best settled in the courts.  Given that the law does not take effect until August 1, 2016 for public colleges, there are currently no penalties for establishing policies in support of our unique campus environment, even if such policies may unintentionally test the boundaries of the law.  If relevant court judgements and appeals processes are not finalized by August 1, an injunction can be filed to ensure due process for all parties.

For the 1,787 or more graduate students on whose behalf we write, we believe the only acceptable course of action is for President Fenves to restrict concealed handgun license (CHL) holders from bringing their weapons into UT classrooms.  Additionally, as necessary, President Fenves should promptly file motions in court sufficient to honor our historical commitment to keep classrooms gun-free, which these graduate students believe is essential to “ensure the safety and security of our entire campus community,” as President Fenves has pledged to do.

Most Sincerely,

The Legislative Affairs Committee of the Graduate Student Assembly,

The University of Texas at Austin

Michael Barnes (Chair)
Aron Weinberg
Emily Germain
Sahil Bhandari
Bart Pitchford
Amir Aziz

Reprinted with Permission