University of Utah officials are not calling it a legal Alamo, but the showdown over the U.'s policy banning guns on campus will continue in federal court.

In a 4-to-1 ruling issued Friday, the Utah Supreme Court found that the U.'s policy banning guns violates state law. Specifically, the majority of justices found that a university, although granted some autonomy under the Utah Constitution, cannot create policies that are contrary to state law.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff joined legislative leaders Friday in lauding the decision. Shurtleff said the case was not about guns but more about control. "Although people think this case has been all about guns, it's really been about the rule of law and who sets the law and who has to obey the law. The message this decision sends today to everyone is that no one is above the law," Shurtleff said.

Meanwhile, the university's president, Michael K. Young, insists the battle will go on in federal court and vowed that the school's no-guns policy will stay in place.

Shurtleff, for his part, said the university will be in violation of state law if it does not comply. He said if officials have a problem with gun laws, they need to take it to the Legislature.

"If you disagree with state law, then go to the state Legislature and change it. That's how our system works," Shurtleff said. "I hope the University of Utah will do that."

However, leaders at the Legislature have been left with some sore feelings over a legal battle that dates back to 2001. Utah Senate President John Valentine said the ruling Friday "affirms that government by the people, through their elected representatives, is the law of the land. There is really no room for independent islands of authority within state government."

State Senate Majority Leader Peter Knudson added, "On behalf of the Legislature, we welcome dialogue with all universities and colleges in our state. We're open to dialogue with them, but I think with this decision today, there aren't many who will find a soft spot in the Legislature."

The fight has been over who really calls the shots on public campuses. For several years, the University of Utah has had a policy banning firearms on campus, citing the preservation of an academic environment free from intimidation.

In the majority decision, Justice Jill Parrish wrote, "The attorney general maintains that the university has no power or autonomy under the constitution that would permit it to disregard state law. We agree with the attorney general."

The lone dissenter, Chief Justice Christine Durham, withheld judgment on whether the university's gun ban was constitutional or not, but Durham wrote that Utah's constitution gave the U. the right to do what is necessary to provide a safe academic environment for its students.

"The record in this case contains extensive evidence ... that a no-weapons-on-campus policy is necessary to the educational enterprise," she said. "I therefore conclude that the university's policies governing students, faculty and staff are within its authority to govern academic affairs."

The ruling impacts all facets of public campuses. The University of Utah alone has more than 44,000 students, faculty and staff members, as well as a preschool. The ruling also impacts the U.'s 46,000-seat Rice-Eccles Stadium and 15,000-seat indoor arena. Assistant Attorney General Brent Burnett said if university officials have concerns about event security, that will also have to be taken up with the Legislature.

"This (no-guns-on-campus) policy remains in force, as it has since 1977," university president Young said Friday during an on-campus news conference that coincided with Shurtleff's press event at the state Capitol.

Young said he was "disappointed" at the state high court's decision and vowed that university officials would review it carefully. But Young was clear: Until the court battles are done, the university will stick with its no-guns-on-campus position.

Young said federal constitutional issues have yet to be resolved in this case. He referred to the capabilities a university has to control its academic environment and preserve the "safety and sanctity" of academic freedom and intellectual dialogue, as well as ensure the safety of students — which he said was the primary consideration.

"Our only goal from the beginning has been to keep our students safe," Young said. "Universities across the country uniformly prohibit guns on campus."

The university filed its federal lawsuit in 2002, challenging Shurtleff's legal opinion that the school did not have the legal autonomy to be contrary to state law.

U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball held the suit, saying the issue first had to be reviewed by the state courts. Given the state Supreme Court ruling, Young said the school intends to notify Kimball. "The federal case — our primary case — continues," Young said.

Young has the unanimous support of the university's Board of Trustees, according to its president, James L. Macfarlane, who was at the university press conference.

"It's not as though we are opposed to guns," Young said, noting that the school's pistol team won a national award. "The university's concern throughout this dispute has been to maintain our campus as a safe learning environment where students and faculty can do their work without a threat to their safety and well-being."

Young also had a daughter at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and one year, she had an M-16 in her locker that had been rigged to not shoot bullets. The next year he visited, Young said he discovered it had been dipped in rubber because, as his daughter informed him, some students had learned how to shoot pencils out of their weapons and were hurting people.

Young joked that if the Air Force Academy considered something like this a problem, it certainly was a legitimate concern for the University of Utah.

He said he was not aware of any situation where a student had asked permission to bring a firearm on campus, and he said there had not been any gun-related incidents since the university adopted its policy.

If a student was caught with a gun on campus, the university would explain the policy. If there were repeat incidents, a range of disciplinary actions could be taken, with expulsion being the last resort.

In the past, the Utah Legislature has heard some of the concerns by university officials. Utah law forbids weapons during disciplinary hearings on public campuses. The law also bans guns in courthouses, prisons, jails, buses and airport terminals.

It remains a question whether the U.'s gun-ban policy will remain in effect as the case works its way through the federal courts.


Contributing: Associated Press

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