Catholic student reinstated as FSU Senate president in student court First Amendment victory

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Unsplash/Nathan Dumlao

Florida State University student Jack Denton has been reinstated as student Senate president after being ousted for sharing his beliefs on transgenderism and abortion.

The school’s Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Senate violated Denton’s First Amendment rights and its own procedure to oust him from office.

“It’s really big. It’s absolutely critical,” said ADF legal counsel Logan Spena in an interview with The Christian Post. “What happened here was just related to Mr. Denton’s religious speech on his political views. There was no basis other than that.”

Denton’s case is important because it shows students around the nation that they’re protected by the First Amendment, Spena said. Spena is the ADF counsel assigned to Denton's case.

“Removing [Denton] as Senate president violated his constitutional rights under the First Amendment; and [we order] a writ of mandamus ordering his reinstatement as Senate president,” the court’s decision on his case said.

The case started when Denton messaged a private Catholic student group chat saying that “Everyone should be aware that, Reclaim the Block, [sic] and the ACLU all advocate for things that are explicitly anti-Catholic,” reported FSU’s student newspaper, which received screenshots of the chat from an anonymous source.

Denton went on to say that transgenderism, abortion and the defunding of police departments contradict the Catholic Church’s teachings on the common good and are “grave evils.”

On June 3, the Student Senate called for a no-confidence vote on Denton, which failed. Following that vote, 7,600 people signed a petition for Denton’s removal, and the next attempt to remove Denton from office succeeded.

“Although we are granted freedom of speech, when you are in a public office you are public property. And that means you must say things that won’t necessarily offend other people,” the Student Supreme Court quoted one student senator as saying.

He responded by filing a suit, with representation from Alliance Defending Freedom, against the student Senate’s decision in both federal and university court.

The student government supreme court ruled decisively in Denton’s favor.

“The school Supreme Court sends the message that students can’t be compelled to give up their right to free speech or religion to participate in student government on equal terms,” Spena said.

The student court based its reasoning on First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion. Student assemblies are empowered to govern by Florida state law. Because the student assembly is therefore a “state actor,” it must protect Denton’s civil rights. By doing otherwise, it broke its own rules.

“Perhaps the unfortunate circumstances which led to this case will teach the members of our SGA to reevaluate their positions and the oath they swore to uphold and learn to accept that different beliefs are not wrong beliefs,” the court’s decision said. “When the Senate elects to condition their selection of leadership in this way they are punishing the Free Exercise of Religion.”

The federal courts have not yet decided Denton’s case. At least one earlier federal court decision said ordering him to return to office would “produce tumult and chaos,” the Catholic News Agency reported. FSU also said it isn’t liable for his dismissal because it was an act of the independent student government.

Spena said that the ADF will attempt to hold the school responsible for the First Amendment violation. School administrators supervised the student Senate session that removed Denton from office, the university processed Denton’s salary and Florida law says student government is part of the university, Spena said. It’s likely Denton will receive $650 in compensation for past harms, he added.

“We’re confident at the end of the day we’ll get an affirmation that what the Senate did violated Jack’s civil rights,” he said.

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