Writing for the 4-1 majority, Utah Supreme Court Justice Jill Parrish said case law "is incompatible with the university's position."
"We simply cannot agree with the proposition that the Utah Constitution restricts the Legislature's ability to enact firearms laws pertaining to the university," Parrish wrote.
In a dissent, Chief Justice Christine Durham said policies that are reasonably connected to the school's academic mission are within its autonomous authority over academic affairs. Under the majority analysis, she said, "the university may not subject a student to academic discipline for flashing his pistol to a professor in class."
But no one will be permitted to carry a gun anytime soon on the campus, home to more than 44,000 students, faculty and staff members. Friday's ruling resolved only the state issues involved in the matter; the case now goes back to U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City for litigation of federal constitutional issues.
The delay is welcome to Landon Smith and Minna Shim, U. students who say they support the ban, which has been in place for almost three decades.
"It scares the hell out of me," said Smith, a senior in communication. "I don't want some cowboy coming to class with a gun."
Shim, an undeclared freshman, said, "I don't feel a threat here now, but if there are concealed weapons around, I'd be afraid."
U. President Michael Young said he was disappointed by the decision.
"Universities across the country uniformly prohibit guns on campus," he said. "We hope that, following a review of this case in federal court, the issue will be resolved to uphold our long-standing policy of keeping firearms off campus."
The U. is arguing that any interference with its gun policy violates its right to academic freedom guaranteed by the First and 14th amendments.
"Under the umbrella of the First Amendment, we believe we have an opportunity to take action when we think something is of a primary importance to the learning environment and the safety of students in the classroom. The U.S. Constitution gives us the scope and freedom to do something about it," Young said.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who issued a formal opinion in 2001 that the U. policy violated a statute forbidding state or local entities from restricting the use of firearms, called the decision a victory for the rule of law.
"It also gives clarity to the university and allows school officials the opportunity to work with legislators to discuss any changes to state laws," Shurtleff said in a written release.
The issue of whether the state constitution allows schools to set their own firearm policies heated up when Shurtleff released his legal opinion. The U. challenged it in 2002 with a suit filed in U.S. District Court that raised both state and federal claims. Judge Dale Kimball declined to decide federal issues until after the school resolved its state claims in a Utah court.
The U. then filed a lawsuit in Utah's 3rd District Court. Based on state law at the time, Judge Robert Hilder ruled in 2003 that the gun ban was legal, prompting the Attorney General's Office to appeal to the Supreme Court.
In response to Hilder's decision, state lawmakers passed a bill in 2004 that said only the Legislature can set gun policy. However, U. trustees then voted unanimously to maintain its policy prohibiting firearms on campus.
In arguments before the state Supreme Court in 2004, Assistant Attorney General Brent Burnett said the university has no power or autonomy under the Utah Constitution to ignore state law.
The U., while acknowledging that the Legislature has general control and budgetary supervision over the school, insisted that it is an autonomous entity that can disregard a law that interferes with internal academic affairs.
The state Supreme Court majority disagreed.
"Indeed, the university's claim is unsupported by the text of our state's constitution, its historical context, or the prior decisions of this court," says the ruling, which came two years after the justices heard oral arguments on the issue.
The majority based its decision on Article X, Section 4, of the state constitution, which says the "general control and supervision" of the higher education system shall be provided for by statute. The justices also said the section that grants the right to bear arms but also gives the Legislature the authority to define their lawful use - Article I, Section 6 - was not a factor in Friday's decision.
Durham agreed that section had no bearing on the issue. She said her dissent is based on the question of which governmental entity, the university or the Legislature, has the authority to make policies governing academic affairs.
She also wrote that her conclusion says nothing about whether the policies at issue are reasonable exercises of the university's authority.
Guns on campus
* Firearms can be carried at the University of Utah because only the Legislature has the power to restrict firearms, says the Utah Supreme Court.
* One exception, already in place, allows school authorities to declare a gun-free zone when hearings on student discipline are conducted.
* Churches, courts, prisons and airports also can declare themselves gun-free zones.
"I feel uncomfortable [with guns on campus]. I feel really safe on campus, and I don't feel a need to protect myself. Allowing guns on campus is an invitation for an accident to happen."
Graduate student in educational leadership
"I'm from the Netherlands, and the whole gun-carrying thing is weird to me. I can't figure out why you would carry a gun. It's not going to make the campus any safer."
Graduate student in modern dance
"I think it's not going to be a positive development. We are safe on campus. There's no necessity for somebody carrying arms."
Graduate student in communication
"It doesn't really bother me. I don't mind either way."
Junior transfer student from England