Students Sue Dixie State U. Over ‘Free Speech Zone,’ Censorship of Bush, Obama, Che Flyers
ST. GEORGE, Utah, March 4, 2015—Students filed a First Amendment lawsuit today against Utah’s Dixie State University, with assistance from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The lawsuit challenges numerous unconstitutional restrictions that Dixie State, a repeat offender against freedom of speech, has placed on the First Amendment rights of Dixie State students.
The lawsuit alleges that Dixie State refused to approve promotional flyers produced by the Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) student group that featured images negatively portraying Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. Dixie State administrators told student plaintiff William Jergins that the flyers would not be approved until he removed references to the political figures because school policy does not permit students to “disparage” or “mock individuals.”
Dixie State’s posting policy states that all flyers must be “in good taste” and, inexplicably, must follow Federal Communications Commission guidelines.
“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 FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff. “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.”
The lawsuit also alleges that Dixie State’s Director of Student Involvement and Leadership unilaterally decided that YAL’s request to stage a “free speech wall” event could be accommodated only in the school’s “free speech zone,” rather than in the requested central area of campus. The location of the free speech zone was unknown to both YAL and other administrators, including Dixie State’s scheduling coordinator, because it is not specified in any published university policy and comprises roughly 0.1 percent of Dixie State’s campus. During the event itself, university police spent a half hour perusing the free speech wall and YAL literature for “hate speech.”
The students’ federal lawsuit seeks the elimination of Dixie State’s speech codes. It is the eighth First Amendment lawsuit filed as part of FIRE’s national Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.
FIRE has retained preeminent First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere of Davis Wright Tremaine and his colleagues Ronald London and Lisa Zycherman to serve as counsel for student-plaintiffs William Jergins, Joey Gillespie, and Forrest Gee.
“A true education demands that students be able to hear ideas different from their own,” said Jergins. “That is why respecting free speech on campus is so important and why we are standing up to get rid of Dixie State’s speech codes. By maintaining these codes, the Dixie State administration limits the ideas we hear, the thoughts we consider—and our learning experiences suffer because of it.”
The Dixie State YAL chapter isn’t the first group of students to fall victim to Dixie State’s restrictive speech codes. In 2013, Dixie State made headlines for refusing to recognize any non-academic student group that used the Greek alphabet in its name—in spite of FIRE’s multiple warnings that this policy violated the First Amendment. Its refusal to abide by its legal and moral obligations landed Dixie State on FIRE’s “Worst Colleges for Free Speech” list in 2013 and resulted in a short FIRE documentary about the case.
Last fall, FIRE mailed warning letters to more than 300 public colleges and universities that maintain unconstitutional speech codes, including Dixie State, explaining that their institution could be sued if it continued to ignore legal obligations under the First Amendment.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and freedom of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Nico Perrino, Associate Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org