Opinion

Florida State Case Demonstrates: Cowardice Is The Demise Of Higher Education

   DailyWire.com
Florida State University the Westcott Building Tallahassee USA. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Anyone that has paid even scant attention to the headlines over the last five years cannot help but notice that something has gone horribly awry in higher education. Historically, universities have been the marketplace of ideas, where our country’s best and brightest can discuss and debate important questions of science, philosophy, religion, and politics. In contrast, today’s universities are filled with radical (and sometimes violent) activists masquerading as faculty and students bent on canceling anyone who challenges the progressive orthodoxy.

Many times, these radical activists violate university policies, not to mention the constitutional rights of other faculty and students, while attempting to shut down debates on important topics like immigration, abortion, racism, human sexuality, and gender identity. Yet, university administrators — those tasked with enforcing university policies and protecting faculty and students’ constitutional rights — are nowhere to be found.

Why? In short, cowardice. They are more concerned with protecting their positions (along with their inflated salaries and associated perks) than they are about protecting the rights of faculty and students and the university’s role as a marketplace of ideas. I should know. As the director of Alliance Defending Freedom’s Center for Academic Freedom, whose mission is to protect the First Amendment rights of students and faculty, I have a front row seat to witness this cowardice daily.

CAF’s victory achieved last Wednesday — one of more than 430 over the last 15 years — illustrates this perfectly.

In June of 2020, the Florida State University Student Senate removed student Jack Denton as its president simply for sharing his Catholic beliefs in a private group chat with other members of the FSU Catholic Student Union. After one student encouraged others to watch a video link supporting organizations that were receiving “ad revenue” from the video, Jack responded that the ACLU, BlackLivesMatter.com, and Reclaim the Block all support positions inconsistent with the Church’s teaching. Jack merely offered a gentle reminder about some of the political stances these organizations take so that his fellow Catholic students would be aware before supporting them financially.

Three days later, the Senate held a special seven-hour meeting in which more than a hundred students berated Jack. They said he “should never have been allowed to hold this position” because of his “outdated and extreme cult mindset.” They said his beliefs were “vile and wrong.” They said to Jack that he needed to be removed because “you must learn your lesson.” And they said allowing Jack to be a leader “would effectively be enabling bigotry.” Agreeing with the mob’s false claims that Jack was a bigot, racist, and transphobe, the Senate voted to remove Jack as Senate president.

The facts are not in dispute. The Student Senate meeting was recorded. And high-ranking members of FSU administration participated in the meeting. No one disputes that Jack was removed solely because he shared his Catholic beliefs, in a private group chat, with other Catholic students. And no one disputes that Jack’s speech was protected under the First Amendment. As such, the Student Senate’s removal of Jack clearly violated the FSU Student Body statute prohibiting “differential treatment of a student based on . . . religion.” Similarly, his removal also violated FSU’s nondiscrimination policy which plainly prohibits discrimination based on creed or religion. With all this evidence, surely the FSU administration would take immediate steps to correct this injustice, right? Wrong.

Jack immediately appealed his removal to the Student Supreme Court. But the court was prevented from hearing his appeal in a timely manner because the Student Senate refused to appoint the necessary number of justices. Jack sent two separate letters to Amy Hecht, vice president for student affairs, asking her to protect his rights and enforce the university’s policies. Ms. Hecht refused both requests.

As a result, Jack was forced to file a federal lawsuit. Last October, the federal court ruled that Jack was likely to prevail on his claim that the university violated his First Amendment rights by removing him as Senate president and ordered the university to begin paying Jack his salary for that position. Several weeks later, more than four months after Jack filed his appeal, the Student Senate finally appointed enough justices so the Student Supreme Court could hear his case. On Oct. 26, the Student Supreme Court issued an opinion finding that the Student Senate’s removal violated Jack’s First Amendment rights and FSU’s nondiscrimination policies. Further, the Supreme Court ordered that Jack be immediately reinstated as Student Senate president.

The Student Supreme Court’s decision was immediately appealed to Vice President Hecht. Surely now, after both a federal court and the FSU Student Supreme Court have ruled that Jack’s removal violated FSU policies and the First Amendment, Hecht would do the right thing and swiftly affirm the Supreme Court’s decision, right? Wrong.

Instead, Hecht intentionally delayed issuing a ruling for more than three weeks until the Senate term had expired. She then issued a brief letter declining to rule on the merits because the issue was now moot.

There can only be one explanation for this: cowardice.

Contrast FSU administrators’ response (or rather, lack thereof) with the courage and wisdom shown by the members of the FSU Student Supreme Court (consisting of second- and third-year FSU law students) in their decision reinstating Jack to his rightful role as Senate president:

“The haste in which the Senate took this action, combined with the severity of the action taken against him—his loss of employment and leadership within Student Government—sends a message to all other members of Student Body: That students with religious beliefs, at least the ones shared by Plaintiff, are not fit to serve in Student Government. To uphold this sentiment within the Student Government Association at FSU, this Court would be encouraging the suppression of religious ideas within our community’s marketplace of ideas and discouraging students who hold such beliefs from participating in that community.”

Indeed.

If universities are to be restored to their rightful role as marketplaces of ideas, university administrators must stop cowering behind their desks and, instead, courageously stand up to the cancel-culture mob seeking to destroy higher education.

Tyson Langhofer is senior counsel and director of the Center for Academic Freedom at Alliance Defending Freedom (@Alliance Defends), which represented Jack Denton in Denton v. Hecht.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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