By David DeMille at The Spectrum
Signed by DSU President Richard “Biff” Williams on Monday and finalized with the plaintiffs on Thursday, the settlement outlines new changes to the school’s policies regarding club events, flier approval processes and the controversial practice of designating “free speech zones” in specific areas of campus.
The school also agrees to provide training to administrators about the new policies and pay out $50,000 for damages and attorney’s fees.
“I am absolutely thrilled by the resolution of this case,” student-plaintiff William Jergins said in a written statement. “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.”
The DSU Board of Trustees voted last Friday to adopt the new free speech policy, implementing a less-restrictive set of rules that administrators have said attempts to balance free speech rights with “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 wrote to DSU students in May.
Jergins and two other students, Joey Gillespie and Forrest Gee, filed the suit in March after claiming their efforts to promote a political club were doused by school administrators.
Members of the Young Americans for Liberty club, a libertarian-leaning organization associated with former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, were planning a rally at DSU’s “Diagonal,” a high-traffic area in the center of campus where many students would have seen it.
Instead, they were told to hold the rally in a less-busy designated “free speech zone” nearby, and the fliers they had distributed to promote the rally were taken down because they spoofed public figures like President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush and Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, according to court filings.
A Philadelphia-based organization called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), helped to supply legal help for the three students, retaining attorneys from Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
A nonprofit advocacy group, FIRE has filed and won multiple suits against American colleges and universities over free speech and due process rights issues. According to a Thursday news release from the group, it has coordinated 10 such lawsuits through its “Stand Up For Speech Litigation” project, with seven having been settled so far.
Representatives with the group indicated they worked cooperatively with school officials to develop the new policies.
“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 rights of DSU students,” said Catherine Sevcenko, FIRE’s Associate Director of Litigation. “The plaintiffs’ courage in standing up seems to have prompted a fundamental change in the administration’s attitude toward student speech, but FIRE will be watching just to make sure.”