Florida State University has agreed to settle a lawsuit after the school and its student senate unconstitutionally retaliated last year against Student Senate President Jack Denton for sharing his personal religious beliefs with other students. The school has also agreed to issue a public statement affirming that student government is open to all students, including religious students, on an equal basis.
“Public universities can’t single out and punish students for their religious beliefs,” said ADF Legal Counsel Logan Spena. “We are pleased that Florida State has finally affirmed its commitment to students’ First Amendment rights on campus. All students should be able to peacefully share their personal convictions without fear of retaliation.”
The lawsuit came about following a private text conversation among Catholic students, in which Denton suggested that BlackLivesMatter.com, Reclaim the Block, and the ACLU all advocate for causes opposed to Catholic teaching, and that Catholic students may wish to avoid supporting the organizations financially. After another student took screenshots of Denton’s private messages and shared them publicly on social media, student senators mocked and misrepresented his remarks and eventually removed Denton from leadership as the SGA’s student senate president. ADF attorneys then filed a lawsuit against the school and members of the student senate after university officials refused to address the violation of Denton’s First Amendment freedoms.
Under the settlement agreement, reached in Denton v. Hecht, Florida State University has agreed to issue a statement affirming the school’s commitment to protecting students’ First Amendment rights on campus, especially in student government. The school will also restore Denton’s lost wages and pay $10,000 in damages to him, as well as nearly $85,000 in attorneys’ fees.
“Today’s college students are our future legislators, judges, and voters. That’s why it’s so important that public universities model the First Amendment values they’re supposed to be teaching students,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “Student governments should be encouraging and respecting robust debate and ideas, not silencing and punishing students for expressing their beliefs. We are encouraged that the university has finally reached the right conclusion.”