TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (ChurchMilitant.com) - A Florida State University (FSU) Catholic student unjustly removed as president of the student senate has been reinstated.
On Monday, Jack Denton was reinstalled to his post as president of the Student Government Association Senate by the FSU Supreme Court. Denton, a political science major, was voted out of office in June owing to comments he made in support of Church teaching in a private Catholic chat room. He reportedly expressed concern that the positions of groups like Black Lives Matter and the American Civil Liberties Union contradict Church teaching.
In an exchange with his lawyer, the 21-year-old student said: "I had never imagined in a hundred years that ... just expressing my Catholic faith would cause such a backlash."
His reasoning: "When students walk on campus they don't forfeit their freedom of speech, their freedom of religion. If students can't express their faiths on campus or in private without fear of losing their jobs or reputation, then freedom of speech and freedom of religion have no meaning," he said.
In the 19-page document, the university court states:
We hereby hold in favor of Plaintiff and grant the relief requested in the form of a declaratory judgment that the Senate's June 5th vote of no-confidence removing Plaintiff as Senate President violated his Constitutional rights under the First Amendment; and a writ of mandamus ordering his reinstatement as Senate President.
"All students should be able to peacefully share their personal convictions without fear of retaliation," said Denton's lawyer, Tyson Langhofer, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
The ruling points out that Denton "was acting in his capacity as a private citizen when he made the statements for which he was removed." It adds "that Plaintiff made these statements pursuant to his role as a member of the Catholic Church and the Catholic Student Union, and not pursuant to any official duty in his role as Senate President."
"In his messages, Plaintiff was speaking as a Catholic student to fellow Catholic students, sharing his views about "the Church's teaching on the common good," the document reads, adding that "The discussion did not mention the Senate or Student Government Association once ..."
The ruling speaks to the injuries suffered by the plaintiff. "The injury in this case is not only Plaintiff's loss of employment, which was the ultimate result of the vote, but it includes also the settled principle that "[t]he loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury," it reads.
Denton's removal "violated his Constitutional rights under the First Amendment," it adds, ordering his reinstatement as Senate President.
This decision follows an October federal district court decision that ordered FSU to continue paying Denton six hours per week for the remainder of what would have been his student senate term as senate president.
Langhofer praised the decision as a victory for freedom of expression. In a statement, he commended FSU "for acting swiftly and decisively to reinstate Jack to his position as FSU's student senate president" and "for acknowledging the violations of his constitutionally protected right to free speech." The lawyer added:
All students should be able to peacefully share their personal convictions without fear of retaliation. As the FSU Supreme Court concluded, the senators 'during debate reveal that they were neither tolerant nor respectful' of Jack's religious beliefs. Further, the court reasoned, failure to reinstate Jack to his leadership position 'would only deter participation' in the university's student government.
It appears the university's court ruling will not put an end to the matter.
University News & Digital Communications director for FSU Dennis Schnittker indicated that the "parties in this case have an opportunity to appeal to the Vice President of Student Affairs and the university has been notified at least one intends to do so."
Langhofer serves as senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, "a non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith" and director of its Center for Academic Freedom.