Florida State University must pay ex-student leader in ouster for religious views, judge says

A federal judge has ruled that Florida State University must pay the salary of a former campus Senate president who was ousted over his religious views.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor last week ordered FSU to make “prospective payment” for lost wages to former Student Senate President Jack Denton, a senior and political science major who was voted out by his colleagues in June over text messages he exchanged with other Catholic students.

Judge Winsor, a Trump appointee, said the university, which administers the student government, had violated Mr. Denton’s First Amendment rights by failing to protect him against retaliation for his protected speech and should resume paying his stipend until his term’s expiration in November.

“To state the obvious, expressing one’s religious views is a constitutionally protected activity. And being removed from a student Senate presidency, as Denton was, would chill someone from expressing himself,” the judge wrote in his 25-page preliminary ruling in the closely watched religious liberty case.

Judge Winsor compared Mr. Denton’s ouster to the Georgia state legislature refusing to seat newly elected lawmaker Julian Bond in 1966 over his criticism of the Vietnam War. A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled the legislature’s move unconstitutional.

“All students should be able to peacefully share their personal connections without fear of retaliation,” said Tyson Langhofer, an attorney with the nonprofit advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom who is representing Mr. Denton.

An FSU spokesperson wrote in email that school officials are reviewing the decision and “considering the university’s options.” An attorney for the Student Senate defendants did not respond to request for comment.

FSU pays the Student Senate president $9 an hour. Mr. Denton told the court that he estimated working six hours a week until the end of his term on Nov. 11. He is to be paid about $216.

The campus Senate removed Mr. Denton in a 38-3 vote in June after critical remarks he had made about the American Civil Liberties Union and Black Lives Matter came to light.

In a group text message with Catholic Student Union students about the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, Mr. Denton discouraged others from donating from donating to the ACLU for its support of legal abortion and Black Live Matters for its “queer-affirming” stance. He said those groups — and a Minneapolis organization that promotes defunding law enforcement — promote “grave evils.”

When screen shots of the conversation were made public, the Student Senate began proceedings against Mr. Denton that led to a no-confidence vote against him. One unnamed student senator remarked that she could “think of no more abhorrent thing to hear coming from our Senate leadership,” according to court filings.

In his order, Judge Winsor declined to reinstate Mr. Denton, saying such a move could “produce tumult and chaos.” But the judge belittled the student senators’ reaction, writing that the Senate was “beside itself” over the plaintiff’s “expression of Catholic views.”

FSU attorneys had asked that Mr. Denton’s lawsuit be dismissed, saying his legal team’s argument that the university functions like a state was a “legal fiction. The university said in a motion that Mr. Denton should be allowed a hearing at the student Supreme Court.

“There is no statutory duty to rescue Denton from an intra-student government fight,” FSU attorneys wrote last month.

In comments to the Tallahassee Democrat, FSU General Counsel Carolyn Egan said the university “has never taken sides between Mr. Denton and those who voted to impeach him, and we hope that the court’s order will allow the Student Senate to get back to the business of student government.”

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