The Student Supreme Court at Florida State University (FSU) has reinstated Jack Denton as Student Senate president, after Denton was removed for discussing his Catholic beliefs on social media.
In a Catholic student group chat, Denton had cautioned against donating to organisations such as Black Lives Matter and The American Civil Liberties Union, which “advocate for things that are explicitly anti-Catholic”, such as transgenderism and abortion.
He also criticised the Reclaim the Block movement’s calls to defund the police, saying its tension with Catholicism was “a little less explicit, but I think it’s contrary to the Church’s teaching on the common good.”
His comments were later shared amongst students, many of whom denounced his views as transphobic and racist, and the Student Senate soon made efforts to remove him. After a first vote of no confidence failed, a vote to remove Denton was passed on June 5.
With the help of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Denton launched a legal challenge against his removal by the Student Senate in both the federal court and the university court.
Earlier this month, the federal court ordered the university to pay Denton his remaining salary for the previous academic year but refused to reinstate him as president on the grounds that his return “could produce tumult and chaos”.
The university court, however, ruled on Monday that failure to reinstate Denton would send a message that “some views are okay to share, and some are not.”
The court argued that “the vote of no-confidence was based on unconstitutional retaliation for his private statements in the Catholic Student Union group chat, expressing his religious beliefs, and thus was in violation of his First Amendment rights to Freedom of Speech and Expression.”
“The discussion did not mention the Senate or Student Government Association once, but, in contrast, mentioned religion and God a number of times. As a private citizen, he was endowed the privileges guaranteed by the Constitution and thus is not barred from bringing this claim under the First Amendment,” the court said.
The university court offered particular criticism for Denton’s successor, Ahmad Daraldik, who “failed in his statutory duty to ensure that University policies, as well as federal laws, were followed.” The court added, however, that Daraldik would be shown “leniency” in order “to create a new environment in the Senate”.
As Student Senate president, Daraldik had himself faced calls to be removed from his position after past anti-Semitic comments of his emerged online. Despite a change.org petition calling for his removal and FSU President John Thrasher apologising for Daraldik’s “offensive anti-Semitic rhetoric”, the Student Senate voted down attempts to remove him at the time.
Denton’s federal case is still ongoing and the university, which rejects any liability for Denton’s removal, noted that the Student Senate retained the right to appeal the university court’s decision.
Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF’s Center for Academic Freedom, praised the university court’s ruling: “We commend the FSU Supreme Court for acting swiftly and decisively to reinstate Jack to his position as FSU’s Student Senate president while his federal lawsuit continues and for acknowledging the violations of his constitutionally protected right to free speech.”
In June, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami denounced the decision to remove Denton. He said that the student president’s “defenses of, basically, Catholic moral teachings” were being punished by a new “soft despotism” of anti-religion which was sweeping the United States.