By Kevin Jenkins at The Spectrum
Dixie State University President Biff Williams announced Monday that some of the school’s public address policies will no longer be enforced as DSU works to establish a comprehensive Free Speech policy that balances the First Amendment rights of students, faculty and staff against efforts to promote “civility and community values” on campus.
“Given the nature of academic inquiry, only an open, robust and critical environment for speech will support the quest for knowledge and understanding,” Williams’ email to DSU students, which was shared with The Spectrum, stated.
According to the email, until a new policy is established, the university will stop enforcing policies that require events to be held in “free-speech zones,” policies that require students to get approval from administrators before holding speech events, and policies relating to the posting of materials on campus bulletin boards, including residence halls.
“Dixie State University is committed to protecting and fostering the free exchange of ideas in the University and on campus,” a second statement issued Tuesday by school spokesman Steve Johnson said. “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 … regarding time, place, and manner.”
The statements are in response to a lawsuit filed by three Dixie State students in March after they were unsuccessful in promoting a political club rally.
The students – Young Americans for Liberty club members William Jergins, Joey Gillespie and Forrest Gee – said despite their efforts to gain the necessary approvals for their rally, DSU policies prevented them from posting fliers that spoofed public figures in announcing the rally, and then required them to hold the rally in a location not frequented by other students but attended by a campus police officer.
The case has been assigned to Magistrate Judge Paul Warner, who is based in Salt Lake City. Jergins said via email Wednesday that he believes the announcement marks a positive first step by the university to address students’ concerns, but he is still skeptical about whether the university’s administration is taking the concerns seriously.
“I was told of Dixie State’s decision to suspend the policies before (receiving) the email by President Williams, at which I was absolutely ecstatic,” Jergins states. “I do, however, feel his tone and characterization of the issue was very inaccurate and unbecoming. It is certainly not fair to imply that Forrest, Joey, and I did not take the decision to sue with the utmost seriousness.”
The university’s statement notes that attorneys for Dixie State and for the students “have expressed interest in working together” to improve the school’s speech policies and that the university is in the process of reviewing the policies with Constitutional concerns in mind.
Williams echoed his emailed statement Tuesday when he said he is troubled that the club members didn’t bring their concerns to him before undertaking the lawsuit.
“We would address those issues,” he said. “I think anytime someone comes in new, there’s some change that has to happen – there’s fresh eyes.”
Jergins’ email states he did attempt to resolve the issue through administrative channels, however.
“At every step of (the) decision process to deny our flyers and push our events into a small corner of campus, I had met face to face with the administrators charged with enforcing the policies, and at every point I was told that those rules were the rules — period. I also researched the policies myself to see if there was a way to change them through DSUSA (the Dixie State Student Association),” he states.
“If there was a way besides legal action to have secured the freedom of speech for myself and my fellow students, we would have taken it. We were certain at the time, and still are, that this was our only option to keep our constitutional rights from being trampled,” Jergins states.
Williams’ email states some speech policies will continue to be enforced pending an updated document. Any materials posted for public view must be date-stamped and removed after 15 days, either by the people posting them or by the university, and the fliers may not be posted on windows, doors, buildings or trees.
“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’ email states, citing a U.S. Supreme Court statement on the role of public universities.
“At the same time, universities are communities that must balance the requirements of free speech with issues of civility, respect, and human dignity. Public universities are part of the larger community, which has its own, sometimes competing, set of values,” the email states. “While well intentioned, policies and regulations that attempt to reflect community values and to promote civility can collide with the First Amendment.”
A nonprofit advocacy group based in Philadelphia that works exclusively with defending free speech and due process rights issues on America’s colleges and universities issued a statement Tuesday saying it will “continue to monitor developments at Dixie State closely to ensure that the university’s apparent recognition of First Amendment principles translates into meaningful policy reform.”
Greg Lukianoff, the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the students shouldn’t need to get permission from administrators to exercise their Constitutional free speech rights on a public university campus or go to a “free speech zone” to do so.
FIRE provided the legal representative support for the students’ federal court complaint.
“Universities like Dixie State are increasingly recognizing that speech codes are losers in both the court of law and the court of public opinion, and they are declining to defend them when challenged,” Lukianoff stated.