By Kevin Jenkins at The Spectrum
ST. GEORGE – Three members of a Dixie State University club are suing the school over alleged violations of their Constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection under the law after efforts to draw participation in an on-campus rally were allegedly frustrated by school officials.
William Jergins, Joey Gillespie and Forrest Gee are listed as the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit filed Wednesday against DSU’s president, police chief, dean of students and other officers, in which the students seek changes to school policy and monetary damages, as well as expenses for their out-of-state attorneys.
Jergins and Gillespie are officers in the Young Americans for Liberty club, a libertarian-leaning organization associated with former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul that they say is an approved campus student organization operating under applicable rules. Gee is listed as a member of the club.
The students’ complaint arises from concerns about school policy limitations on political caricatures included in fliers the club wanted to post to advertise its October meetings and limitations on the places where the fliers could be posted, as well as limits on where the students could hold a public event later that month in which students were invited to use large, blank sheets of paper to “write any message they desired to affirm constitutional free speech protections,” according to the federal court filing.
The rally was moved from the club’s requested location in the “Diagonal” center of campus where many approved club events take place to a “free speech zone” near the Gardner student center, which is one of the buildings bordering the Diagonal area and the location for some administrative offices, the bookstore and the cafeteria.
The complaint argues that students have little reason to pass near the free speech zone because no classes are held in the building. It also states that a campus police officer attended for about 30 minutes despite the students’ request to not have police present, and during that time “student participation decreased even further,” leading the officer to comment he was “probably scaring everyone away.”
“It is close (to the Diagonal), but the difference is quite big if you stand in that triangle,” Jergins said. “There’s no traffic past there where we can hand out fliers. … All that was part of a recruitment drive, essentially.”
The complaint also shows copies of the fliers, which include satirical images of former President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama and deceased leftist revolutionary Che Guevara. According to the complaint, Dean of Students Del Beatty and his administrative assistant, Debbie Millet, required the students to remove the pictures before posting the meeting announcements because of DSU’s policy against mocking people.
DSU Director of Public Relations, Marketing and Publications Steve Johnson said the university only learned of the litigation shortly before noon Wednesday and will not comment on the allegations at this time, including related questions pertaining to the free speech zone or the club’s charter.
“Dixie State is a public university bound by the First Amendment, and the First Amendment is quite clear that you have the unequivocal right to criticize or mock political figures,” said Greg Lukianoff, who is the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
“One has to wonder how Dixie State students can engage in serious political discussions – or any discussion at all – when they are forced to follow the university’s ridiculous policies, which go so far as to forbid any poster in a residence hall that students or administrators can claim creates an ‘uncomfortable’ environment,'” Lukianoff said via a news release on the lawsuit.
FIRE Associated Director of Communications Nico Perrino said the Philadelphia-based organization is a nonprofit advocacy group that works exclusively with defending free speech and due process rights issues on America’s colleges and universities, as well as privacy rights in some limited cases.
FIRE was founded in 1999 and initially contacted numerous higher education institutions about concerns in which the speech rights of faculty members or students were curtailed.
“Then we found that colleges and universities, unless they got sued, wouldn’t change,” he said. “We haven’t lost any (student speech lawsuits) yet. … We’ve settled four of them (out of court) in our favor.”
The Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles-based attorneys representing the DSU club were retained by FIRE. Perrino said it is the group’s eighth lawsuit but its “first foray into Utah.”
“Things like we did, kind of poking fun at public figures, I don’t think should be disallowed,” Jergins told the Associated Press.
“The policies Dixie State has really are restrictive,” he told The Spectrum & Daily News later. “(So) we haven’t been able to really rejuvenate the club like we’d wanted.”
In order to be approved by the university, a club must have at least 10 members, three of whom are willing to be officers, he said.
The club was organized at the beginning of the fall semester but it took about a month to get running, and by then a number of people had lost interest.
The political club has about 60 people on its email list, but usually only about five people attend the “sporadic” meetings, Jergins said.