Speech, Civility, and Guns

A few days ago Marty Kich posted an item on this blog that reported an effort by gun-rights advocates in Oklahoma to pass legislation that will allow guns to be brought onto the state’s 25 public college and university campuses.  An officer of the state’s Second Amendment Association promotes the legislation in these terms: “’Anywhere you can carry your Bible, which is your First Amendment right, you should be able to carry your gun, which is your Second Amendment right.”

Now an incident in Utah demonstrates a different sort of connection between the first two amendments.  Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist writer and the creator of the popular Tropes versus Women video series, was scheduled to speak at Utah State University’s Center for Women and Gender.  Along with several others, however, she received an ominous and serious death threat.  Claiming to be a student, the writer promised “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if Sarkeesian’s lecture wasn’t canceled. The email author wrote that “feminists have ruined my life and I will have my revenge, for my sake and the sake of all the others they’ve wronged.“

“I have at my disposal a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols, and a collection of pipe bombs,” the email continued.  The threats increase throughout the letter, saying at one point that even if security is increased it won’t save anyone and feminists on campus won’t be able to defend themselves. “One way or another, I’m going to make sure they die,” it said.

Sarkeesian, however, was willing to speak anyway, provided that metal detectors be present and that those attending be screened for firearms.  Utah State declined because of Utah’s relaxed open-carry laws.  (Actually, Utah at least requires a permit to carry a weapon; many other states, as the map above shows, do not even do that.)  As a result, Sarkeesian tweeted: “Forced to cancel my talk at USU after receiving death threats because police wouldn’t take steps to prevent concealed firearms at the event.”  And here is the university’s explanation:

Anita Sarkeesian has canceled her scheduled speech for tomorrow following a discussion with Utah State University police regarding an email threat that was sent to Utah State University. During the discussion, Sarkeesian asked if weapons will be permitted at the speaking venue. Sarkeesian was informed that, in accordance with the State of Utah law regarding the carrying of firearms, if a person has a valid concealed firearm permit and is carrying a weapon, they are permitted to have it at the venue.

The incident is another painful reminder of the continuing power of misogyny, but it also suggests that open-carry laws, ostensibly designed to protect Second Amendment rights, may also endanger First Amendment rights.  For who can blame Sarkeesian for her decision?  The word is now out: want to ban a controversial speaker in an open-carry state?  Make a death threat and watch how powerless the authorities are to respond.

In this case, Utah State apparently maintains rather different standards for regulation of speech and of guns.  The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has already given Utah State a “red light” rating, indicating that the university “has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”  At Utah State that policy is a provision in the student conduct code which reads: “All interactions with faculty members, staff members, and other students shall be conducted with courtesy, civility, decency, and a concern for personal dignity.”  But I guess that carrying a concealed firearm into a public speech delivered by someone who has received a death threat is perfectly courteous, civil, decent and respectful of personal dignity.  Or perhaps the policy just doesn’t mention guest speakers.

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