By Marcos Camargo at The South Utah Independent
On Monday, May 4, Dixie State University President Richard Williams announced a moratorium on many of the school’s speech codes. The policy change, released in a campus-wide email, came as a result of a lawsuit, filed by three students against DSU in March, alleging that the university violated the students’ free speech rights.
The lawsuit was filed after school officials refused to approve the distribution of fliers criticizing Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush as well as revolutionary leader Che Guevara. In addition to refusing to approve the fliers, the suit also contends that school administrators confined an event put on by the plaintiffs to a restricted “free speech zone”—an area of campus with much lower foot traffic than the location originally requested by the students to hold the event.
The plaintiffs, all members of the Young Americans for Liberty, retained counsel through the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization that seeks “to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities.”
Based on statements made to The Independent by a representative of FIRE, President Williams’s announcement suggests the lawsuit has applied pressure sufficient that administrators are willing to resolve the case by revisiting the university’s speech codes and overhauling current policies if necessary.
“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 reads. “To that end, 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.”
The email from Williams goes on to say that while this may be true, universities still must balance the requirements of free speech with issues of civility, respect, and human dignity.
According to the email, a moratorium was placed on the enforcement of the following policies and practices relating to speech:
– Policies relating to the posting of materials on campus bulletin boards, including residence halls.
– Policies that require students to obtain approval from administrators before holding speech events.
– Policies that require events to be held in “free-speech zones.”
However, Williams said that while new policies are being developed, they will still continue to enforce policies that require date-stamping on posted materials, with a 15-day time limit for display, and policies that specify the locations where materials can be posted.
Catherine Sevcenko, associate director of litigation for FIRE, spoke with The Independent regarding President Williams’s announcement.
“This is an important step forward that [DSU] has announced a moratorium to these unconstitutional policies,” said Sevcenko. “That they have said that they are going to do a complete reform of their policies is also an encouraging sign … But we’re going to be watching to make sure that these nice words turn into concrete action.”
Sevcenko said that FIRE had been expecting DSU to declare a moratorium on several of the university’s speech policies in the days leading up to President Williams official email announcement.
“The moratorium is a result of negotiations between [DSU’s] lawyers and the students’ lawyers,” Sevcenko continued. “In that sense it’s a binding agreement between the two parties. There had been an agreement [reached prior to the release of President Williams’s email] and we were just waiting for the university to announce it.”
Sevcenko said that the moratorium does not constitute a full settlement.
“The lawsuit is still ongoing,” said Ms. Sevcenko, “and this is an important first step, but the lawyers will be continuing settlement discussions. And so whatever policy reform [DSU] puts into effect have to meet with the approval of the plaintiffs—that is if [the university] wants the lawsuit to settle.”
The Independent received the following statement from Steve Johnson, the DSU Director of Public Relations, Marketing, Publications, Trademark, and Licensing.
“Dixie State University 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.
“After three students filed a lawsuit against DSU alleging violations of their First Amendment rights, attorneys for DSU and the students have expressed interest in working together to improve DSU speech policies. Counsel for DSU and DSU administrators are in the process of reviewing DSU policies in light of existing constitutional law to find areas of improvement.”
The Independent will continue to follow this story.