Utah legislators consider resolution to protect students’ First Amendment rights

L-R: 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 in 2015. The students sued Dixie State for free speech violations and received a $50,000 settlement from the university, March 2015 | Photo courtesy of the Foundation for Individual Freedom in Education, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Inspired by a First Amendment lawsuit against Dixie State University in 2015, a couple of Utah legislators are aiming to better protect students’ rights.

A bipartisan resolution proposed in the 2018 legislative session looks to encourage state institutions of higher education to protect students’ civil liberties. After being introduced in the Senate Monday, the proposed Concurrent Resolution on the Importance of Civil Liberties for Students was favorably recommended by the Senate Education Committee Tuesday.

Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, is one of the sponsors of the resolution. After hearing about incidents in which free speech on Utah college campuses was encroached, Coleman said she knew she needed to take action.

“Here in Utah and all around the country, free speech is something that we see has become at risk,” Coleman said. “College campuses especially should be where free speech flourishes and is not taken away. That’s what (Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City) and I hope to protect with this resolution.”

Impact on college campuses

One of the incidents Coleman said inspired her to sponsor the resolution was a free speech lawsuit against Dixie State in 2015, which was filed after the university tried to prevent students from posting flyers around campus that made fun of political figures.

Forrest Gee, who is now a senior at Dixie State, was one of three students who received a $50,000 settlement from the university as a result of the lawsuit. After the lawsuit, Dixie State’s free speech policy was revised to something Gee said is much more open. However, Gee said, there is still room for the university to improve its free speech policies further.

It’s definitely become a lot better since the revision of the free speech policies,” he said. “It’s a lot more open for students to protest now if they feel like they need to.”

There should be some kind of free speech committee on every college campus to help determine what is permissible to say, Gee said.

Dixie State officials said in a statement: “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.”

Southern Utah University officials did not respond to St. George News’ requests for comment on how a resolution encouraging the protection of students’ free speech rights might impact their institution.

Appealing a policy that infringes on students’ rights

Another key aspect of the resolution is it will recommend an “avenue by which a student may appeal a school policy.” This means it would be up to the state institutions of higher education to create a way for students to challenge their policies that may infringe on students’ rights.

Coleman said it’s important for students to have a way to stand up against institutions of higher education if there is something they see needs to change.

Students need some way, without taking legal action, to challenge universities if they are infringing upon their rights,” Coleman said.

Coleman is also sponsoring a bill in the House that would require students to have legal representation present at certain disciplinary proceedings in an institution of higher education. The bill proposes to enact the Student Right to Active Counsel law. The bill introduced in the House Monday and sent to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration.

If there had been a way for Gee to challenge the university through an official appeals process, he said he may not have had to sue Dixie State for violating his First Amendment rights in 2015.

Students come to universities to learn and expand their worldview by exercising free speech and listening to others, Gee said.

“We’re not here at universities to be thrown into an echo chamber where we’re not being exposed to different ideas,” Gee said. “Oftentimes, students feel like they can’t speak freely on campus if they have a differing opinion. This needs to change for all universities.”


Read more: See all St. George News stories related to Utah’s 2018 legislative session

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  • wjergins January 23, 2018 at 7:26 pm

    So all this does is create an internal committee dedicated to hearing free speech complaints of students, that the University administration then staffs with people who think just like them (after all great minds think alike, or at least people who think they great minds tend to think people who think like them have great minds), and students spend two years wrapped in paperwork to get their complaint through, graduate in the meantime and lose standing to change the rule they felt was violating their rights….

    The problem was never that we lacked a means to complain. We had to visit several administrators every time we got an event or anything else approved. It was the Dean of Students’ secretary, after going directly into the Deans of Student’s office to speak with him in private about the flyers, who refused to stamp them so that they could be distributed on campus… The University was fully aware that what they doing was a violation of our rights, wrong, and that we upset about it.

    The problem was and is that universities and university administrators are violating these rights that we as American citizens are born with under the highest law of our land. Until that issue is fixed, it is completely unbecoming, inappropriate, and counter to the stated intention of protecting students’ rights to begin making it harder for students to protect those rights by wrapping that process up in a bureaucratic mess controlled by the same institution that did the wrong doing in the first place.

    I understand the good intentions of the legislators to protect the state’s funds, and for this they should be accommodated greatly. However, this should never come at the price of giving away some one else’s right to have their controversies heard and resolved by an impartial judge. The same right that any other person in this country would have had they had their first amendment rights violated by a government official.

  • Bill January 23, 2018 at 9:08 pm

    Mr. Jergins, it seems like you made out like a bandit with a $50K payout to split three ways; that’s a pretty decent consolation prize for your Che Guevara flyer not getting posted when you wanted it to.

    Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that I get to post whatever I want, wherever I want, and/or whenever I want. You were and are free to create the flyer with the content of your choice, but I wonder why you should be free to post that content with the implicit blessing of campus administration. Shouldn’t the school be able to filter content to a degree that it protects the decorum and general learning environment of the school?

    To be fair to you, I can’t say that your content crossed the line of propriety (I haven’t seen it nor read about it other than this article), but my thought process gets me asking where does free speech devolve into a free-for-all that is not meritorious of the 1st Amendment umbrella? Should we be able to squat and $#!+ on public property in the name of porcelain protest? Toilet seat in the dorm wasn’t cushy enough, so time for a free-speech evacuation! Or, how about open-air couplation to raise awareness of a chronic bedbug problem in family housing? At some point, personal expression stretches beyond the realm of free speech protections. Where would you, personally, like to see the state draw the line, or do you want a line to exist at all?

    That said, enjoy your payout and consider getting into publishing. When you pay for the press and the paper, you can print whatever you want to. Of course, distribution is another issue….

  • Jamie January 27, 2018 at 9:32 am

    Um it’s called the first ammendment— what state government needs more legislation protecting this right than the actual legislation guaranteeing this right???

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