Some state legislators are questioning whether new student conduct rules at the University of Tennessee could lead to unwarranted disciplinary action against students who keep guns and knives for legitimate reasons.
“If I read it literally, this would ban most knives with blades 3 inches or longer. But we’re going to just trust the university’s judgment about which ones to take,” said Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, in summarizing one proposed rule and UT officials’ explanation for enforcing it.
“I guess I would agree with that,” replied W. Timothy Rogers, vice chancellor for student life at UT Knoxville.
Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, recalled that he kept a shotgun, a pistol and “an assortment of knives” in a UT married student apartment during his student days, occasionally taking the shotgun across university property to his car for a hunting trip. He asked if that would put him in violation of the rules, even considering the apartment was his home.
“It would be a technical violation,” replied Matthew Scoggins, assistant general counsel for UT.
Scoggins and Rogers repeatedly assured the lawmakers that UT only cites students for violations of weapon rules when they go beyond simple possession, typically by threatening someone or causing harm.
“I’ve been involved in this for 37 years and have never processed a case that didn’t involve some ancillary violation,” said Rogers.
Scoggins said UT has not had a “substantial revision” of its student conduct rules since 1974 and the new rules, which will take effect next month, mostly amount to updating and clarifying things. There are some new provisions, such as a prohibition on surreptitiously recording another student when he or she has a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”
But the gun and knife rules, which UT officials said are basically the same as under existing standards, drew most of the discussion at Wednesday’s meeting of the Joint Government Operations Committee, composed of both House and Senate members.
Under state law, the Legislature must sign off on all new rules promulgated by state agencies, and the Government Operations Committee conducts a review of proposed rules.
The panel eventually gave its approval to the UT rules, though Bell, chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, asked the UT officials to consider revisions before the rules approval reaches the House and Senate floor for a vote early next year.
UT police keep and store firearms for students who bring them for purposes such as hunting or target practice.
Under the rules changes, UT would forbid any knife with a blade longer than 3 inches. When Bell observed that would include a “butter knife,” Scoggins pointed out there is a specific exemption for “instruments that are used for the preparation of food.”
“Just about any knife could be defined as for the preparation of food,” said Bell. “I’ve got a hunting knife and when I use it to skin a deer, that’s for preparation of food.”
He, Shipley and some other legislators said that, if UT does not prosecute students for simple possession of a prohibited weapon, the rules should perhaps reflect that by saying some intent of an illicit purpose should be required to trigger disciplinary action.
“What about an 8-inch screwdriver? What about a tire tool? What about a baseball bat?” asked Shipley at one point. “Anything in the hands of somebody who wants to break the law is a weapon.”
Shipley also said he was “uncomfortable” that UT officials do not need a regular search warrant to seek prohibited items in a student’s room or in a car on university property and instead only an “administrative authorization” from an official such as Rogers.