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.
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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