Dixie State settles free speech lawsuit; students get $50,000

From left, William Jergins, Forrest Gee and Joey Gillespie hold up satirical flyers that were not approved by Dixie State University staff because the images violated the school's speech policies, St. George, Utah, March 2015 | Photo courtesy of the Foundation for Individual Freedom in Education, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – Dixie State University has reached a settlement in a lawsuit filed earlier this year by three students over the university’s free speech policies, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education announced Thursday. As part of the settlement, the university will pay the students $50,000 total in damages and attorney fees. DSU is also revising the speech policies plaintiffs claimed were restrictive and vague.

Once the lawsuit was filed, Dixie State quickly came to the table and we were able to work out a settlement that restores the free speech rights of DSU students,” Catherine Sevcenko, FIRE’s associate director of litigation, said in a statement. “The plaintiffs’ courage in standing up seems to have prompted a fundamental change in the administration’s attitude toward student speech, but FIRE will be watching just to make sure.”

The three students – William Jergins, Joey Gillespie and Forrest Gee – filed the lawsuit in March.

One of the satirical fliers the Young Americans for Liberty club hoped to use to promote a meeting, but was not approved by Dixie State University staff due to violations of school policy against depicting individuals in a “disparaging” light. | Image courtesy of the Young Americans for Liberty club and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, St. George News
One of the satirical fliers the Young Americans for Liberty club hoped to use to promote a meeting, but the flier was not approved by Dixie State University staff due to violations of school policy against depicting individuals in a “disparaging” light | Image courtesy of the Young Americans for Liberty club and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, St. George News

The incidents spurring the lawsuit occurred in October 2014 when the plaintiffs, members of the Young Americans for Liberty club, wished to post flyers promoting the club featuring satirical images of U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush and Cuban revolutionary Ché Guevera. As the images allegedly depicted the figures in a “disparaging” manner, they were not approved by university staff.

The other incident occurred when, as part of an event, the club set up a “free speech wall” consisting 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, according to the lawsuit, and consisted of less than 0.1 percent of Dixie State’s 100-acre campus.

Members of the club felt their constitutional rights of free speech and expression were being violated by Dixie State’s policies, and the students subsequently gained FIRE’s aid in filing the lawsuit. The suit argued that parts of the university’s speech polices were vague and undefined.

I am absolutely thrilled by the resolution of this case,” Jergins said in a statement from FIRE. “Students at Dixie State will now be able to benefit from the most rigorous educational environment available: one of free speech and open inquiry.”

In an email sent to students and faculty in May, DSU President Richard Williams announced the school was suspending its speech policies and would be reviewing them with the aid of the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

“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,” Williams wrote.

Williams also said in the email that he was disappointed the students felt the need to file a lawsuit rather than go to him with their concerns. It was a sentiment shared in a statement the DSU administration issued Thursday about the settlement.

“The students never expressed to DSU student leaders, advisors, or the administration that they were unsatisfied with the feedback they received or felt their rights were being violated in anyway (sic),” the DSU administration said in the statement. “Dixie State University first learned of the students’ dissatisfaction via the lawsuit. Had the students come to the university first, we would have been happy to work with them to update our speech policies and help them promote their event.”

The administration nonetheless said it was grateful for the revised speech policies resulting in the wake of the lawsuit.

As a part of the settlement, administrators will be trained about the school’s new speech policies.

FIRE is a nonprofit group with a membership that runs the “political and ideological spectrum,” according to the press release. The group seeks to protect the free speech rights of individuals in colleges and universities across the nation. To this end, the group has filed and won or settled a number of lawsuits related to on-campus First Amendment issues.

The lawsuit against DSU wasn’t the first time the university drew the notice of FIRE for alleged First Amendment violations. In fall 2013, the group became involved in a dispute between then 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 with.

While FIRE called Dixie State’s policy a violation of Klabanoff’s constitutional rights, Assistant Utah Attorney General D. Michael Carter defended the school’s position 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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  • 42214 September 18, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    I think DSU just got a $50,000 lesson in the Greek Life if you know what I mean.

  • sagemoon September 18, 2015 at 9:19 pm

    A good win for free speech in southern Utah.

  • fun bag September 18, 2015 at 10:49 pm

    they should take the $50,000 straight outta MESAMAN’s retirement package…

    • 42214 September 19, 2015 at 7:52 am

      It wouldn’t cover it.

      • fun bag September 19, 2015 at 11:11 am

        well, he worked there for only about 100 years. I bet it’s a generous package…

        • 42214 September 19, 2015 at 11:45 am

          A generous retirement package from DSU? I doubt it.

    • Dexter September 19, 2015 at 11:39 am

      Yeah really at his age its not doing him any good. Ha ha ha ha

  • tcrider September 19, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    I say, Anyone in this country that wants college education, needs to do two years minimum for active military duty or four years reserve.
    I can understand lack of respect for authority, but not from snotty nosed punks that have very little real life experiences to make these judgement calls.
    Israel makes it mandatory for all young people to do two years service, and they have a much better disposition towards elders, authority and act much more professional overall.

    • 42214 September 19, 2015 at 4:13 pm

      Yes, and they should be required to sign a loyalty oath and promise to never be rude. Lawrence Welk should be mandatory TV viewing and a dress code too. Do away with NCAA athletics because the students would be too old after military service.

    • Dexter September 19, 2015 at 4:14 pm

      Well then move to Israel you’ll be happier there.

      • tcrider September 20, 2015 at 11:54 am

        I would, but flying is getting a little bit too scary these days and too many germs on the boats.

        • Dexter September 20, 2015 at 12:33 pm

          Walk there. nobody would care

  • Common Sense September 19, 2015 at 7:38 pm

    You do have the right to free speech. The school also has a right to enforce a policy. Perhaps the students could have come up with a better flyer to engage and capture the attention of potential future members. One example could be images and comments that reflect actual truths that are based on facts instead of nonsensical garbage. What I see here are typical liberals getting their handout.

  • fun bag September 20, 2015 at 12:04 am

    So why isn’t the Bush/Cheney crew in prison? anyone know? they fit every definition of war criminals…

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