By Craig Bennett at The Independent
A lawsuit filed by three students against Dixie State University, with the assistance of FIRE, (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) has been reached. The lawsuit states that the settlement restores free speech rights to students at the University.
In a release issued on Sept. 17 by FIRE on behalf of three DSU students, Dixie State University has agreed to revise speech policies and pay $50,000 in damages as well as attorney’s fees.
The situation began when three students at the university, William Jergins, Joey Gillespie, and Forest Gee, attempted to get flyers approved from Dixie State administrators. The flyers criticized former President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, and Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. The school rejected the flyers because they “disparaged” and “mocked” individuals, in violation of DSU policy.
With backing from FIRE, Jergins, Gillespie, and Gee filed the suit against DSU. The lawsuit alleges that the student’s free speech rights were violated when the university refused to approve the flyers promoting their student group, Young Americans for Liberty (YAL).
According to information provided by FIRE, the lawsuit settlement restores free speech rights at the university after censorship of the flyers. Dixie State Administrators also made the decision that the YAL group’s “Free Speech Wall” event would have to take place in the university’s free speech zone.
Neither the three plaintiffs nor any administration officials reportedly knew the location of the free speech location, and the location was not published in the University Policy.
A ccording to FIRE, as part of the settlement Dixie State agreed to revise the campus policies targeted by the lawsuit to align with First Amendment standards. It included a requirement that the university’s unconstitutional flyer approval process, posting policies, club event policies, and the “free speech zone” policy be revised. The university also has agreed, as part of the settlement, to provide training to administrators about campus’s new speech policies.
“Dixie State University is in the process of settling a lawsuit filed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on behalf of three students regarding the institution’s speech policies,” said Jyl Hall, public relations coordinator with the university in a statement she provided to The Independent. “The university is grateful for the stronger speech policies that resulted from the lawsuit, but is disappointed in the way the changes came about. The students received guidance from advisors on how to market their club event after several flyers were presented. 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. 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.”
“I am absolutely thrilled by the resolution of this case,” said Jergins. “Students at Dixie State will now be able to benefit from the most rigorous educational environment available: one of free speech and open inquiry. I hope that in moving forward, other universities will look at their own speech codes and make sure that those codes are fully respecting the freedoms of speech, expression, and inquiry that all students deserve.”
In an email sent by Dixie State University, President Richard B. Williams stated that Dixie State University is a place “where even unpopular answers, seemingly absurd ideas, and unconventional thought are not only permitted, but even encouraged.”
“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 of Dixie State students, the plaintiff’s courage in standing up seems to have prompted a fundamental change in the administration’s attitude toward student speech,” said Catherine Sevcenko, associate director of litigation with FIRE. “FIRE will be watching just to make sure.”
Dixie State first caught the attention of FIRE when the university refused to recognize social fraternities or clubs that used Greek letters in their names. The administration ignored or rebuffed repeated efforts by students and FIRE to resolve the situation until the three plaintiffs came forward and filed the lawsuit.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at the nation’s colleges and universities.
Dixie State University has not been immune to controversy in the past few years. First was a name change for the athletic teams from the “Dixie Rebels” to “Dixie Storm.” The university has also had controversy regarding the name “Dixie,” which for many represents the racial oppression and slavery of the Southern states, while for many local Utahns, the name relates to the Mormon pioneers sent to the area for the purpose of growing cotton. The word “Dixie” still continues to create controversy.