Three students have filed a lawsuit against Dixie State University in St. George, Utah, claiming their First Amendment rights were violated when flyers they made promoting their student club were censored by school officials.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is assisting with the lawsuit, which was filed this week against the university. Dixie State disapproved of promotional flyers by the student group Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), which negatively portrayed Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara.
The flyers were not approved because the school policy does not permit students to "disparage" or "mock individuals."
Three students from YAL—William Jergins, Joey Gillespie, and Forrest Gee—are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and the eight defendants are school officials including the president of Dixie and the Dean of Students.
Jergins, the president of YAL, told the Washington Free Beacon by email he was "extremely taken back by the denial of the posters," and he "never expected that posting a flyer that was critical of Che Guevara, an internationally recognized war criminal and mass murderer, would be a problem."
"I was extremely disappointed by the decision to deny our flyers advertising our club meetings and events. This was especially hard because we were getting such a late start to the semester," said Jergins. He said YAL is new on campus and it took a month for the club to get approval to operate on campus.
"We're a politically oriented club that doesn't hold the same beliefs of either major party," Jergins said. "As such, people often have very little clue who we are or what we believe in. Everyone knows what Bush and Obama believe. Saying we disagree with both Bush and Obama is then often the quickest way to couch what we do believe into terms that everyone will immediately grasp."
The denial of the flyers "represented a blanket denial of the expression of our beliefs in the way that we felt would be most readily understood and accepted by our fellow students," Jergins said.
The lawsuit claims Dixie State has "adopted and enforced excessive restrictions on the rights of students organizations, and limited student speech in open areas of the campus." The university refused to allow the plaintiffs to post the flyers with the unflattering depictions of Bush, Obama and Guevara because Dixie State "does not allow students to ‘disparage' others," the lawsuit states.
"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 in a prepared statement.
"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," Lukianoff said.
Aside from the censorship of the flyers, Dixie State also restricts free speech to a certain small area of campus, the lawsuit alleges.
"Dixie State unconstitutionally restricts access to open areas on campus for expressive activities by requiring that students request permission to speak several weeks in advance. And once approved, plaintiffs were relegated to a previously unknown "free speech zone" that comprises only around 0.1 percent of Dixie State University’s 100-acre campus," states the lawsuit.
Dixie has specific guidelines for students’ materials, and indicates the university has the right to remove any materials that do not adhere to the its guidelines.
"Materials must be in good taste (FCC guidelines), adhere to campus policy, look professional, and not detract from the campus appearance. Dixie State University reserves the right to remove any posted materials that do not meet our posting guidelines," Dixie’s policy states. It also says that "materials may not single out any individual group or entities in a derogatory manner."
"As far as Dixie State's policy of not disparaging specific individuals with flyers or advertising materials, I would ask the administration to look at the principles this nation was founded on," Jergins said. "The First Amendment doesn't include an exception for our political leaders for a reason. Our leaders should be subject to scrutiny.
"It is every American's right to look at the most powerful office in the nation and say firmly that they disagree with the persons in that office or their policies. The University should celebrating these acts of free and open inquiry that promote discussion and learning, not banning them, and not threatening punishment to those who are brave enough to stand up and say they disagree with the status quo."
The students’ federal lawsuit seeks the elimination of Dixie State’s speech codes.
According to FIRE, Dixie State’s YAL chapter is not the first group of students subjected to Dixie State’s "restrictive" speech codes. In 2013, the university 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.