Dixie State Tosses Free Speech Limits After Students Sue Over Bush Posters

May 5, 2015

By Annie Knox at The Salt Lake Tribune

A lawsuit brought by three students has forced Dixie State University to drop its limits on free speech — at least until attorneys draft new campus rules.

The St. George school announced Monday that students no longer need prior approval to post fliers or hold events on campus.

Dixie State President Richard Williams announced the changes in a university-wide email. He called Dixie State a campus “where even unpopular answers, seemingly absurd ideas, and unconventional thought are not only permitted, but even encouraged.”

Still, Williams urged students and others to use caution. “Universities are communities that must balance the requirements of free speech with issues of civility, respect and human dignity,” he wrote.

Dixie State, which transitioned from college status to university in 2013, has had other recent free speech clashes. That year, for example, the dean of the business school ordered the student newspaper to stop publishing a sex column, but he quickly reversed the decision.

The three students who sued the school in March said they were forbidden from posting satirical pictures of former President George W. Bush and Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara in October. William Jergins, Joey Gillespie and Forrest Gee were promoting Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian-leaning group.

The students said they were told the fliers with the photos violated school protocol by mocking someone. They contended the school’s policy of requiring permission before posting materials was arbitrary and violated their First Amendment rights, according to court documents.

The school’s decision to drop its “troublesome speech codes is an encouraging first step toward the open learning environment Dixie State students want and deserve,” Jergins said in a prepared statement Tuesday.

The court proceedings are on hold as school administrators, attorneys and the students work on a new policy, said Utah Assistant Attorney General Joni Jones.

The university had only a loose set of protocols until now, she said. “I don’t think there had been an overarching effort,” Jones said, “with an eye toward the First Amendment.”

She expects the new speech policy to look much like the interim one, with no requirement for prior approval and no bans on topics. It’s expected to be in place by the start of fall semester.

It’s too early to tell whether a judge will award the students attorneys fees or the damages they sought, Jones said.

Some restrictions on time and place still apply: Fliers or other materials posted on campus must be stamped with the date they went up. Administrators may take them down after 15 days if the poster has not done so. And no papers or other materials may be placed on trees or building exteriors — including windows and doors.

The students’ suit names several Dixie State officials, including Williams. Their attorneys were hired by the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which directs free speech lawsuits on college campuses nationwide.

After the students’ fliers were rejected in October, they planned to create an on-campus “Free Speech Wall” of blank paper for students to write on.

But the school further violated their free speech rights by sequestering the celebration in a remote corner of campus, the students’ attorney said in court documents.

The students said they got the necessary approval for the event from school officers but were told to put the wall in a seldom-visited, designated free-speech zone. A police officer showed up even though they had not requested the added security, which the students argued shooed off students.

The university said in a statement Tuesday it “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,” it added.

Schools: Dixie State University Cases: Dixie State University – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project