Kutztown University may not be the only state-owned college to begin allowing legally registered guns in "open areas" on campus.
A blanket prohibition against firearms on campus is legally unenforceable, said lawyers for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) in conjunction with the state's Office of General Counsel. The system has 14 universities, including Kutztown.
All, including West Chester and Cheyney, were asked to make sure their policies complied with the law, according to Kutztown president F. Javier Cevallos, who sent a message to the campus community about the change in policy Thursday evening.
But after Kutztown's decision became known Friday, the state system asked the other universities to hold off on any changes until a task force review.
Kutztown's policy remains in effect, said Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the system.
"Whatever is in effect today is what they should follow until this review is completed," Marshall said.
Under Kutztown's policy, firearms - even if legally registered - still will be prohibited in most areas of campus. According to Cevallos, guns will not be allowed "in academic buildings, administrative buildings, student residence halls (both university owned or leased), dining facilities, student union buildings, athletic facilities, recreation centers, or while attending a sporting, entertainment, or educational event on university property or sponsored by the university."
But firearms can be carried in "open areas" of campus by those with a government license, Cevallos said.
"Any requests for further exceptions must have the approval of the university chief of police," Cevallos wrote. "While I am cognizant of the concerns associated with this change, as a state institution we must follow the advice of legal counsel and do what is necessary to comply with the Second Amendment."
Cevallos did not specify what "open areas" meant. Kutztown spokesman Matt Santos said it meant "general campus grounds."
The 289-acre campus in Berks County has more than 9,800 students.
The state system lawyers' recommendation to review policies came in response to questions by students who possess licenses to carry firearms and questioned whether a ban violated the Second Amendment, said Nils Fredericksen, a spokesman for the general counsel's office. The concerns were raised more than a year ago, he said.
That prompted the lawyers to take a detailed look, he said. Realizing that Supreme Court cases in recent years have struck down blanket bans - though allowing regulation in sensitive places - the lawyers developed a "model" policy that included more "narrowly tailored restrictions on firearms," Fredericksen said. The policy addressed public safety and constitutional concerns, he said.
Such narrowly tailored policies have withstood constitutional challenge. The Virginia Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that George Mason University's ban on guns in buildings and at events does not violate the Constitution.
George Mason also is a public university. Around the country, other public institutions have taken steps similar to Kutztown to keep within federal and state constitutional law, said Ada Meloy, general counsel to the American Council on Education, a national higher education umbrella group. Private colleges and universities, she said, are not held to the same standard.
"It's my belief that most restrict guns from campus to the greatest extent possible," she said.
While questions had been raised, Marshall said, the state system had not faced any legal challenges to the gun-ban policies. Concerns came from both students and other individuals, he noted.
Guide M. Pichini, president of the state system's board of governors, on Friday afternoon, defended the system's decision.
"PASSHE universities have the ability to prohibit weapons, including legally registered firearms, in academic buildings, student residence halls, dining facilities, student union buildings, athletic facilities, and recreation centers, or while attending a sporting, entertainment, or educational event on university property or sponsored by the university," he said in the statement.
"However, PASSHE's policies also must be consistent with Pennsylvania law, which allows individuals who are properly permitted to carry a firearm 'on or about one's person or in a vehicle throughout the commonwealth.' "
He also said that the system last month created a public safety and security task force to study all areas of campus safety, including a "review of the issue of weapons on campus in order to help ensure consistency across the system and that the policies comply with the law."
The system has asked its other universities not to alter their policies while this review takes place. The task force includes representatives from the FBI and state police and is expected to come back with recommendations within six months.
Marshall said he did not know which other universities had bans on weapons or if any of the others had modified their policies.
West Chester has not revised its policy, a spokeswoman said. It prohibits weapons on campus with exceptions for "appropriate circumstances" granted by the director of public safety.
A message left at Cheyney's office of communications was not returned.
After the task force weighs in, the universities will be asked to make sure their policies comply with the law, but also will be permitted to tailor their guidelines based on the needs of their campuses, Marshall said.
"The goal is still to have them be able to adapt a policy to meet their specific needs," Marshall said. "But they need some consistency and need to comply with state and federal law."