Students file lawsuit against DSU, argue First Amendment rights violated

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Dixie State University students filed a lawsuit against the university regarding campus speech codes.

Students from the Young Americans for Liberty Club filed a First Amendment lawsuit against DSU with the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The students involved in the lawsuit are William Jergins, a senior math major from St. George; Joey Gillespie, a junior psychology major from St. George; and Forrest Gee, a freshman integrated studies major from Herriman. 

According to the press release, the lawsuit filed by the students claims the university wouldn’t approve promotional posters from the club to be displayed on campus because they didn’t meet the criteria in the school’s posting policy. 

The posters negatively depicted President Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Cuban leftist revolutionary Che Guevara. The policy states posters can’t “single out any individual group(s) or entities in a derogatory manner.”

Jergins said he didn’t expect the posters to be a problem. 

“They handed me [the posting policy] after and were like, ‘These were the ones you violated’,” Jergins said. “Can we put up fliers that say ‘I disagree with Hitler,’ disparaging an individual, if Che Guevara isn’t allowed to be criticized?”

According to the press release sent out by FIRE, Jergins said the speech codes on campus hinder the learning experience by putting limits on the “ideas we hear [and] the thoughts we consider.”

Jergins and his peers are seeking the removal of these speech codes.

The lawsuit also involves concerns about free speech zones on campus.

The formal Complaint for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief and Damages filed by Jerkins, Gillespie and Gee claims the defendants DSU President Biff Williams; Dean of Students Del Beatty; Administrative Assistant Debbie Millet; Seth Gubler, director of student housing and resident life; Jordon Sharp, director of student involvement and leadership; Sharon Lee, coordinator of academic scheduling; Don Reid, Director of Public Safety; and an unnamed member of campus security violated the constitutional rights of the club members. 

First Amendment Attorney Robert Corn-Revere, an outside counsel for FIRE, said in a phone interview the students contacted FIRE with their case. He said FIRE receives information on situations that involve students and faculty on campuses who have problems with free speech and due-process issues. 

“If there is a suitable case in those instances, FIRE will be willing to offer assistance,” Corn-Revere said. “This is one of those cases.”

Corn-Revere said the complaint names the parties involved, how they are related to the case and presents the information explaining what happened, with the final section relating the facts to the legal claims.  

It is up to the university to respond, Corn-Revere said. He said the university can work out an arrangement where the policies are re-written to conform to the constitutional requirements. 

“If we can’t work that out informally, then we use litigation to go forward,” Corn-Revere said. “The university and the individual defendants have the opportunity to either file an answer to the complaint — which basically responds to the factual legal allegations — [and] the litigation goes forward from there.”  

Corn-Revere said even if the factual allegations are accepted, the defendants can file a motion to dismiss the complaint, claiming that it doesn’t create legally recognizable claims.

The goal of Jergins, Gillespie and Gee is to reform the university policies and prevent ongoing violations of constitutional rights, Corn-Revere said. 

Catherine Sevcenko, associate director of litigation for FIRE, said this case is the eighth case filed as part of the Stand Up for Speech Litigation Project launched by FIRE. One of the cases was settled in about seven months, which Sevcenko says is “lightning speed.” She said another case is in its seventh year. 

“This whole process, I haven’t really enjoyed it,” Jergins said.  “It has been kind of a nerve-racking process, and it has been a little stressful.”

He said he hopes the case is settled quickly but is willing to fight as long as it takes.

Section 97 of the official complaint filed by the students, available on the FIRE website said the students “are entitled to damages in an amount to be determined by the evidence and this Court and the reasonable costs of this lawsuit” as well as all fees for attorneys. 

Sevcenko said this is standard practice for a civil rights case.

Ronald London, a First Amendment attorney who is an outside counsel for FIRE, said during a phone interview if the complaint is litigated, the monetary compensation helps makes up for the violation.

“I think the complaint lays out our perspective on how their First Amendment rights have been violated in the past under these policies,” London said. “They are certainly entitled to be made whole for those harms, which when these matters are litigated means a damage award.”

London said he believes FIRE has reached out to DSU in the past about re-writing the university’s policies.

“FIRE is always willing to work with any university that wants to brings its policies up to date … when it comes to the First Amendment,” London said. “The bottom line is that [DSU] needs to conform to the First Amendment.”

Steve Johnson, director of public relations, said in an email, “Dixie State University does not comment on pending litigation.” 

According to the FIRE press release, Greg Lukianoff, FIRE President and CEO, said, “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.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that has provided attorneys to represent the students during the lawsuit.

Dixie Sun News will continue to cover the lawsuit as more information becomes available.

Haley Hazen completed additional reporting for this article.

This news story was updated at 5:00 p.m. on March 8.