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Dixie State's Refusal to Recognize First Amendment Gains More Attention

Last week, a new semester began at Dixie State University, and while the classes may have changed, the school’s refusal to uphold its students’ First Amendment rights to free expression and free association remains the same.

After senior Indigo Klabanoff re-applied for official recognition for her student group, Phi Beta Pi, FIRE wrote a third letter to the school on December 18 explaining—again—why Dixie State cannot ban Greek letters in club names just to avoid a “party school” image. We sent the letter to Dixie State’s trustees, as well as the Board of Regents of the Utah System of Higher Education.

Disappointingly, Indigo’s group was denied recognition—again—on January 8, reaffirming Dixie State’s placement on FIRE’s 2013 list of the “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech.” With continuing media coverage of the case, Dixie State administrators’ supposed efforts to protect the school’s reputation are achieving the opposite effect.

On Monday, the Dixie Sun News student newspaper reported on the university’s inclusion on FIRE’s dishonorable list and relayed remarks from two communication professors at Dixie State. Professor Eric Young said that Dixie State’s restrictions on club names “interdicts what free speech is all about.” Professor Randal Chase also questioned the policy’s constitutionality, and explained Dixie State’s motives:

Paranoia against the party image stems from deep-rooted historical contexts, Chase said. The hierarchy of DSU places an importance on keeping things under control and silencing outsiders. Chase also said there are a handful of families in the community that have political power, and members of administration are anxious not to displease them.

An opinion piece published in The Spectrum (St. George, Utah) earlier this month cautions that Dixie State’s loyalty to certain members of the local community might drive away potential students from outside of southern Utah. Noting Dixie State’s place on FIRE’s “worst schools” list for denying Phi Beta Pi recognition, the piece warns:

If the disapproval ... continues, DSU’s reputation will be tarnished not because of it being known as a party school, but one that actively stifles students’ right to free speech. This is one of the biggest turnoffs to anybody researching the possibility of attending the school.

Meanwhile, Dixie State is struggling to provide new justifications for its rejection of Phi Beta Pi. Dean of Students Del Beatty is now insisting that the Greek letters themselves are not the problem, but his and other administrators’ past statements and actions indicate otherwise.

To start, Dixie State created the policy disallowing all clubs except honor societies from using Greek letters in their names specifically in response to Klabanoff’s request for recognition of her group. Subsequently, both Beatty and Director of Student Involvement & Leadership Jordon Sharp repeatedly cited that new policy as the reason for denying Phi Beta Pi recognition. Beatty and Sharp have also explicitly stated that the group could be approved with all the same goals and planned activities, just under a name without Greek letters. Most recently, in denying recognition to Phi Beta Pi, Sharp wrote to Klabanoff: “I see that Greek Letters remain in the club name which as you know is against our bylaws. Therefore, I have again denied this request.”

Still, Beatty and Sharp argue that denying Phi Beta Pi official recognition is necessary in order to ensure that prospective students are not misled into thinking there is a fully-funded Greek life system on campus. Sharp wrote in an email to Klabanoff on January 8: “I don't want students to go to our website, go through the clubs list, and transfer here under the assumption that we have a Greek Program.”

It is disingenuous, after months of citing concerns about the school’s “party school” reputation, to now claim that Dixie State is simply trying to avoid perpetuating some sort of fraud upon Greek hopefuls considering Dixie State. The real risk for potentially-misled prospective students comes from the fact that Dixie State promises (PDF) students freedom of speech and assembly, while failing to provide as much. And it’s a flat-out insult to Dixie State’s students for Beatty to dismiss repeated calls for the university  to respect its students’ basic First Amendment rights as “grasping at straws,” as he does to the Dixie Sun News. 

Anyone who cares about the integrity of the university and about its students should be worried students will visit the school’s website, review the Student Code, and enroll or transfer there under the assumption that the school has a commitment to protecting student rights to free expression and association. It does not.

Image: Indigo Klabanoff

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