WATCH: Student sues university after being booted from student senate for privately stating Catholic beliefs
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TALLAHASSEE, Florida, September 18, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — A 21-year-old Florida State University senior ousted as president of the student senate for privately stating his Catholic beliefs in an online group chat says he has no regrets despite what befell him after his comments were leaked publicly.
Jack Denton was vilified, falsely accused, and the subject of a petition calling for his removal and an editorial labeling him “unfit” for office – all as part of a campaign to remove him from elected office that succeeded within the space of 48 hours.
But that could change because Denton is now suing Florida State University’s administration and student government officials to get his job and his reputation back.
He and his lawyer Tyson Langhofer, director of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Center for Academic Freedom, spoke recently to LifeSiteNews about his experience and the significance of the case.
“This wasn’t an attack just on my First Amendment right to freedom of speech or my First Amendment right to express my religious beliefs. It’s an attack on everyone’s,” said Denton.
“And if I, if a student can’t walk onto a public university’s campus and express their…mind and their religious beliefs, then no one can,” he added.
“We as Americans have the right to express ourselves and express our religious beliefs. If we can’t express our religious beliefs, then the First Amendment doesn’t mean anything.”
BLM, ACLU promote ‘grave evils’: Denton
Denton, who is graduating from FSU in December, was elected to the student senate as a freshman and held a number of leadership roles before being elected president.
“I also take part in a Catholic club at Florida State University in which we offer prayer and encouragement to other students through our group chat,” Denton related.
“When one of my fellow members of the Catholic Student Union sent a message asking us to financially support causes that were contrary to our Catholic faith, I felt the need to point out the discrepancy,” he said.
“And without my permission, she took screenshots of what I said, and sent them to members of the Student Senate, who then removed me from my position as Student Senate president for simply stating well-known Catholic doctrines in a private group chat in my non-official capacities as a student.”
The groups Denton advised fellow Catholics in the June 3 private group chat not to financially support were BlackLivesMatter.com, the American Civil Liberties Association, and Reclaim the Block.
“BlackLivesMatter.com fosters ‘a queer-affirming network’ and defends transgenderism,” and the ACLU “defends laws protecting abortion facilities and sued states that restrict access to abortion,” he wrote.
Reclaim the Block “claims less police will make our communities safer and advocates for cutting PD’s budgets. This is a little less explicit, but I think it’s contrary to the Church’s teaching on the common good,” he stated.
When it appeared his remarks had upset some participants, Denton messaged that he didn’t “mean to anger anyone” but had a duty to speak up.
“I know this is a very emotional topic. However, it is important to know what you’re supporting when you’re Catholic. If I stay silent while my brothers and sisters may be supporting an organization that promotes grave evils, I have sinned through my silence,” he wrote.
“I love you all, and I want us all to be aware of the truth. As far as [whether] it’s a religious issue or not, there isn’t an aspect of our lives that isn’t religious, because God wants our whole lives and everything we do to be oriented around him!”
Denton falsely accused, called “transphobic, racist”
When Denton’s messages were leaked, the student senate made a first attempt to oust him at a virtual meeting the same day, during which some senators “mocked and misrepresented” his remarks, according to an ADF press release.
Senator Kundhavi Gnanam falsely accused Denton of describing some people as “grave evil” and made a motion of no-confidence against him because, she said, “people who have described me and my community as ‘grave evils’ have done it with the intention to not only hurt me emotionally but to hurt me physically,” according to the lawsuit.
Senator Sasha Martin stated that Denton should not have even thought it was appropriate to express the Catholic Church’s teaching about sex in private to other Catholics, it stated.
“I am hurt that he thought it was okay to say something homophobic in a Catholic chat thinking it was a ‘safe space,” Martin said.
When his opponents failed to secure the two-thirds majority needed to remove Denton, “a public campaign immediately ignited to pressure the Student Senate into taking another bite at the apple,” related the lawsuit.
A change.org petition demanding Denton’s removal accused him of “transphobic and racist remarks,” the student-run magazine The Spire ran an op-ed contended he was “unfit” to be president and the FSU chapters of Amnesty International and Pride Student Union called for his resignation.
“I was shocked by…the allegations and accusations that were thrown at me,” Denton told LifeSiteNews.
“I would say what is especially disappointing is to see so many people I considered friends and allies in the Student Senate, you know, turn their backs on me pretty quickly,” he said.
“However, you know, I was just expressing my religious beliefs, my deeply held moral convictions to other students in a private group chat. And I felt like I had done nothing wrong.”
By June 5, senators aiming to oust him had enough signatures to press Denton as president to call a special senate meeting, where he was voted out.
Ouster “unconstitutional retaliation” against Denton
His decision to lawyer up was a process that began the same day, Denton said, when a friend put him in contact with Langhofer.
“I felt it was necessary to stand up to protect these rights that I hold so dear to me and [that] others do, and I just felt like this was … meant to be,” he said.
The ADF lawsuit filed August 31 names as defendants FSU president John Thrasher; Amy Hecht, vice president for student affairs; Brandon Bowden, interim director of student governance and advocacy; Student Senate President Ahmad Daraldik; and Alexander Harmon, president pro tempore.
It alleges that Denton’s removal was an “unconstitutional retaliation” against his religious beliefs and that the college senior’s ousting caused him financial harm — the loss of about $850 in pay — as well as permanent reputational damage.
Denton is seeking preliminary and permanent injunctions to restore him as Student Senate president, the “purge” of any files referring to his removal, nominal and compensatory damages for the violation of his constitutional rights and attorney’s fees and costs.
On September 29, the court will rule on their request for a preliminary injunction to restore Denton, whose term expires in October, as president and award him his back pay, Langhofer said.
The lawsuit could ultimately go to a jury trial, and the case is crucial because “public universities really have no business punishing students simply for holding different views than their peers,” Langhofer said.
“As Jack said, that applies to Jack, but it applies to every student, and so we’re really fighting for the rights of every student to feel free to share their views on a public university campus because it is supposed to be the marketplace of ideas.”
What does the First Amendment mean?
Denton said he had no previous experience with “cancel culture” on campus before this happened, and that throughout the ordeal he had support from his parents, his family and his pastor.
Moreover, “I did get quite a bit of support from the Catholic community at Florida State,” and “a lot of sympathy” from people “whether or not they technically maybe agreed with what I said,” he said.
“They just recognized that this was an attack on not just my First Amendment right, but everyone’s First Amendment right to express their religious beliefs on campus.”
Now studying online from his home in Charlotte, North Carolina, Denton is still part of the Catholic group, and says that “things are going well.”
He also exhorted Americans to never be afraid to speak out in defense of their beliefs.
“I would encourage everyone of all faiths to always feel comfortable and feel free to express their religious beliefs, and don’t feel like you can’t or that you’re silenced, because no matter what, the Constitution is the law of the land,” he told LifeSiteNews.
“And we have the guaranteed right to freedom of speech and religion. And if we feel like we can’t express our beliefs, then … that freedom could go away.”
For respectful communications, contact:
FSU President John Thrasher
211 Westcott Building
Florida State University
Tallahassee, FL 32306-1470
FSU Vice President of Student Affairs Amy Hecht, Ed.D.
313 Westcott Building
Florida State University
Tallahassee, FL 32306-1340