On the Rice University campus, he was known as Kyle the Aquatics Guy, an innocent-looking adjunct professor in the Wellness Center who never hesitated to stay late and teach students CPR or first aid training.
“If you met him you wouldn’t think he was an activist type or anything,” says a former colleague of Kyle’s who would like no further identification. “He wasn’t going around and pushing his gun-rights project at work. It was something he was proud of that he only talked about to those people that knew him personally.”
What Kyle Coplen was proud of, then and now, is his Armed Citizens Project, a nonprofit organization the 30-year-old founded last January for the express purpose of equipping Houston’s single women with breakaway shotguns. In only a year, he says, the ACP has trained 240 locals in gun safety and armed about half that number, most of them women in Oak Forest, which Coplen selected not because its women are peculiarly susceptible to crime, but to measure the impact of weapons on a typical neighborhood’s crime rate.
But no good deed—if that’s what creating a well-regulated militia of women in Oak Forest is—goes unpunished, or so we discover when we meet up with Coplen at the Shiloh Shooting Range in Cypress, where he spends a lot of time now that he no longer works at Rice.
“As soon as I founded ACP, the administration’s goal was to get me to shut up,” he tells us while firing a .22 at a Bin Laden poster. Why? Because school officials didn’t like his politics or the attention it generated, says Coplen. This the university vehemently denies, at least privately (they’ve said nothing publicly, citing school policy). Be that as it may, last August, believing that he was about to be fired by a university regime ruthlessly intolerant of dissent, Coplen did what all good Second Amendment types do when confronted by tyranny: he took matters into his own hands … and resigned.
Martyrdom was inevitable, Coplen believes. “If you’re a liberal with bold ideas you’re labeled a progressive. If you’re a conservative and you’re on a college campus, you’re labeled a fringe lunatic.” And while fringe lunatics have their place at America’s universities, they tend to keep a low profile, which Coplen has not. He’s given interviews about ACP to the national press, the international press, CNN, and ABC, where he’s scheduled to appear in an upcoming 20/20 segment. For a time, it seems, all the world wanted to hear about Coplen’s unique blend of chivalry and feminism. At Rice, meanwhile, he was reprimanded multiple times, once for speaking to a German reporter about ACP while on campus and once for not giving a supervisor enough notice before flying to New York for a Piers Morgan Tonight segment. Coplen is absolutely certain that he was given permission to take the time off, and utterly confused as to why the segment never aired. (Could one of the producers be a Rice grad?)
Back on earth, Coplen’s former employer appears to dispute the claim that he kept his Rice work and ACP work separate. Or anyway, such is our interpretation of a written statement supplied by B.J. Almond, a university spokesperson. “In general”— wrote Almond, referring not to Coplen specifically but publicity-seeking, mid-level college personnel of all stripes—“if an employee wants to do media interviews to promote a personal cause that is not related to their job, they need to do so on their own time and they should not imply that they are speaking on behalf of the university or that the university endorses their cause.”
This is especially the case when one is no longer an employee of Rice, as Coplen found when he received a cease-and-desist letter a few weeks after quitting. “He continued to identify himself as a Rice employee when doing media interviews about his involvement with a personal cause,” Almond’s statement continues. Coplen denies this, stating that some of the interviews he submitted to during the media frenzy that was his superstar summer weren’t published until after he left Rice.
Which, Coplen insists, was just the latest attempt by the university to deny his freedom of speech. Well before he quit, he says, Rice officials instructed him to remove any association with the university from his Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn pages. Almond, meanwhile, referring not to Coplen specifically but all mid-level college personnel who might seek to leverage their Rice cachet on social media, writes, “If someone has worked at Rice, they’re entitled to note that on their resume and biographical sketch (both in print and online).” But what about Coplen’s other claim, that Rice henchmen ordered him to refrain from wearing university-branded hats and shirts during interviews? At this, Almond put down his pen, commenting no further.
And so in August, Coplen says, following numerous meetings with university officials and growing intimidation from the Rice autocracy, he decided it was time to strike back, and so he quit.
“I could either leave my job or live in constant fear of being terminated,” he says back at Shiloh. “I kept thinking that if I get fired from a respected university — what does this do to my chances of working in higher education in the future?”
To this we have no answer. For his part, Coplen shrugs his shoulders and readjusts his Rice baseball cap.