ST. GEORGE – In an email sent to students and faculty Monday, Dixie State University President Richard Williams announced parts of the university’s speech policy are being suspended while staff review and revise it.
The announcement comes in the wake of a lawsuit filed against the school in March by three student who claim DSU’s speech policies were unconstitutionally restrictive. Aiding the students in pursuing the lawsuit is FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
“As you may be aware, three students filed a lawsuit against Dixie State in March, and although I am troubled that these students would not bring their concerns to me before seeking such drastic measures, it has brought to our attention the need to update and revise some of our University policies,” Williams said in the email that was also posted on FIRE’s website.
The incidents spurring the lawsuit occurred in October 2014 when members of the Young Americans for Liberty club wished to post fliers promoting the club that featured satirical images of U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush and Cuban revolutionary Che Guevera. As the images allegedly depicted the figures in a “disparaging” manner, they were not approved by the university.
The other incident occurred when the club set up a “free speech wall,” which consisted of oversized sheets of paper on which students could write anything they wanted “to affirm their constitutional free speech protections,” according to the lawsuit.
The event was approved, but the free speech wall was relegated to a “free speech zone” on campus that barely received any student traffic and consisted of less than 0.1 percent of Dixie State’s 100-acre campus, according to the lawsuit.
Members of the club felt their constitutional rights of free speech and expression were being violated by Dixie State’s policies and subsequently gained FIRE’s aid in filing the suit in March. The suit argues that parts of the university’s speech polices are vague and undefined.
The students named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are William Jergins, Joey Gillespie and Forest Gee.
“A true education demands that students be able to hear ideas different from their own,” Jergins said in a statement in March. “That is why respecting free speech on campus is so important and why we are standing up to get rid of Dixie State’s speech codes. By maintaining these codes, the Dixie State administration limits the ideas we hear, the thoughts we consider—and our learning experiences suffer because of it.”
In his email Monday, Williams wrote:
Given the nature of academic inquiry, only an open, robust and critical environment for speech will support the quest for knowledge and understanding. To that end, Dixie State University is a campus of academic freedom, with the right to inquire broadly and to question, and where even unpopular answers, seemingly absurd ideas, and unconventional thought are not only permitted, but even encouraged.
… At the same time, universities are communities that must balance the requirements of free speech with issues of civility, respect, and human dignity.
The university’s administration released a statement noting counsel for the university and its administration “are in the process of reviewing DSU policies in light of existing constitutional law to find areas of improvement.”
The administration further stated:
Dixie State University is committed to protecting and fostering the free exchange of ideas in the University and on campus. University community members have the right to freedom of speech and assembly without prior restraint or censorship, subject to clearly stated, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory rules and regulations regarding time, place, and manner.
A review of the speech policies is being done with the aid of the Utah Attorney General’s Office. The revised policy will likely take effect when the fall semester begins.
Catherine Sevcenko, FIRE’s associate director of litigation, told Utah Pubic Radio in an interview Thursday that Dixie State University had made a good first step in resolving the issue. However, it remains to be seen if the new policies conform with constitutional free speech protections, she said.
“The next step is the bigger step, which is what policies are they going to put into place to replace the ones that they have now abolished, and our concern is to make sure that those policies conform to the First Amendment,” Sevcenko said.
In an interview with Fox 13, Jergins said he was pleased DSU’s administration has moved to revise its speech policies.
“No matter how many credits we’re enrolled in, we don’t lose our rights as American citizens” Jergins said.
Sevcenko told UPR that FIRE hopes the lawsuit ends in a settlement, while Jergins told Fox 13 that as long as Dixie State’s new policies align with free speech protections, the lawsuit will likely be dropped.
This isn’t the first time the university has drawn the notice of FIRE for alleged First Amendment violations. In fall 2013, the group became involved in a dispute between student Indigo Klabanoff and the school.
In 2012, Klabanoff repeatedly petitioned the school to allow her to create a sorority on campus called Phi Beta Pi. Dixie State did not grant the request, claiming the potential association with the “Greek life” promoted an image the university didn’t want to be connected to.
While FIRE called Dixie State’s policy a violation of Klabanoff’s constitutional rights, Assistant Utah Attorney General D. Michael Carter defended it in a letter to FIRE, stating that, “Greek-related organizations have a reputation for alcohol abuse, a high incidence of sex-based, alcohol-related, and hazing crimes, and various campus violations.”
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