VICTORY: Lawsuit Settlement Restores Free Speech Rights at Dixie State U. After Censorship of Bush, Obama, Che Flyers
- Dixie State agrees to revise restrictive speech policies, pay $50,000 in damages and attorney’s fees
- University claimed Bush, Obama, Che flyers “mock[ed]” individuals
- Lawsuit is seventh consecutive victory for FIRE’s undefeated litigation project
ST. GEORGE, Utah, September 17, 2015—Dixie State University’s 8,570 students have a special reason to celebrate Constitution Day today after their university agreed to settle a First Amendment lawsuit filed earlier this year by three students. The settlement—finalized today—is the seventh consecutive victory for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE’s) unprecedented and undefeated Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.
As part of today’s settlement, Dixie State agreed to revise the campus policies targeted by the lawsuit to meet First Amendment standards. These include the university’s unconstitutional flyer approval process, posting policies, club event policies, and “free speech zone” policy. The university has also agreed to provide training to administrators about the campus’ new speech policies and pay $50,000 in damages and attorney’s fees.
“I am absolutely thrilled by the resolution of this case,” said student-plaintiff William Jergins. “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.”
With assistance from FIRE, Jergins and fellow students Joey Gillespie and Forrest Gee filed a lawsuit against Dixie State on March 4, 2015. The lawsuit alleged that their free speech rights were violated when the school refused to approve flyers promoting their Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) student group.
Dixie State administrators rejected the flyers—which criticized former President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, and Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara—because they “disparage[d]” and “mock[ed]” individuals, in violation of university policy. On another occasion, a Dixie State administrator decided that the YAL group’s “free speech wall” event would have to take place in the university’s unconstitutional “free speech zone,” comprising roughly 0.1 percent of campus. Neither the student-plaintiffs nor other administrators knew the free speech zone’s location, and it was not specified in any published university policy.
In May, Dixie State suspended its speech codes pending a resolution of the students’ lawsuit. At the time, Dixie State president Richard B. Williams announced in an email to the campus community that the university would permanently revise its policies. In his email, President Williams stated that Dixie State is a place “where even unpopular answers, seemingly absurd ideas, and unconventional thought are not only permitted, but even encouraged.”
“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.”
Dixie State first caught FIRE’s attention in 2013 (VIDEO) when the school refused to recognize social fraternities or clubs that used Greek letters in their names. The administration rebuffed repeated efforts by students and FIRE to resolve that situation and continued ignoring students’ First Amendment rights until Jergins, Gillespie, and Gee filed their lawsuit in March.
FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, which celebrated its first anniversary in July, has coordinated 10 lawsuits against public colleges and universities that have restricted student and faculty First Amendment rights. The seven settled lawsuits—including today’s at Dixie State—have restored the free speech rights of almost 200,000 students and secured over $350,000 in damages and attorney’s fees.
Attorneys Robert Corn-Revere, Ronald London, and Lisa Zycherman of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine have represented all of the Stand Up For Speech student and faculty plaintiffs.
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 rights 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