Students receive $50,000 from free speech lawsuit

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Free speech at Dixie State University hasn’t come easy.

DSU settled a lawsuit Thursday by paying $50,000 in attorney’s fees and damages to three students who filed a First Amendment lawsuit last semester. DSU also agreed to retain less-restrictive free speech policies on campus, which were reformed over the summer, and provide trainings for administrators on the new policies. 

Students from DSU’s Young Americans for Liberty Club filed the lawsuit with the assistance of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education against DSU in March, claiming their free speech rights were violated. The settlement was signed by President Biff Williams Sept. 14 and was finalized by the plaintiffs Thursday.

According to the lawsuit, university officials refused to allow the students to post certain flyers promoting their club around campus because they criticized former President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, and Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. Because the flyers “disparaged” and “mocked” these individuals, they were in violation of university policy in place at the time. 

The speech policies were reevaluated over the summer by administrators and by the Utah attorney general’s office. The new policies, which allow for an open forum on campus, were unanimously approved by the board of trustees Sept. 12.

In an email, Public Relations Coordinator Jyl Hall said DSU officials are grateful for the stronger speech policies that resulted from the lawsuit but are disappointed in the way the changes came about. 

“DSU first learned of the students’ dissatisfaction via the lawsuit,” Hall said. “Had the students come to the university first, we would have been happy to work with them to update our speech policies and help them promote their event.”

William Jergins, one of the student plaintiffs who has since transferred to Texas Tech University, said he is thrilled with the settlement. 

“Students at [DSU] will now be able to benefit from the most rigorous educational environment available—one of free speech and open inquiry,” Jergins said. “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.”

Assistant Attorney General Joni Jones said she is also happy with the outcome of the lawsuit. 

“[The lawsuit] was resolved quickly and without much litigation,” Jones said. “From my perspective, the goal of the plaintiffs wasn’t about money; it was about getting the appropriate (speech) policies in place at DSU.” 

Many of the trainings for the new speech policies have already taken place, but officials will continue holding trainings as necessary, Jones said. The new speech policy has also been posted on DSU’s website to ensure transparency, Jones said.

Catherine Sevcenko, associate director of litigations at FIRE, said DSU was quick to come to the table and propose the changes in the speech policy soon after the lawsuit was filed.

“The plaintiffs’ courage in standing up seems to have prompted a fundamental change in [DSU’s] administration’s attitude toward student speech, but FIRE will be watching just to make sure,” Sevcenko said.