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Court reinstates student government leader removed for Catholic beliefs: ‘unconstitutional retaliation’

No evidence for ‘chaos and tumult’ argument

Earlier this month, a federal judge ordered Florida State University to pay Jack Denton his salary as student senate president after the student government removed him for privately stating Catholic beliefs.

But the judge refused to reinstate Denton to his position, finding that he was so loathed by his colleagues for his religious views that he couldn’t effectively serve as president.

The Student Supreme Court at FSU had other ideas. In a ruling Monday, the five justices overturned the June 5 vote of no-confidence and ordered Denton’s reinstatement as senate president, finding him the victim of “unconstitutional retaliation.”

The “long-term interest in protecting the values of the First Amendment” is “undeniable,” the court said: If it didn’t reinstate Denton (above), “the message this sends on behalf of our Student Government Association, as well as our University, is that some views are okay to share, and some are not.”

Without mentioning U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor’s order, the Student Supreme Court explicitly rejected Winsor’s reasoning that Denton’s reinstatement could produce “tumult and chaos” in the student government.

MORE: Judge refuses to reinstate Denton because it would trigger people

“We do not agree” that Denton’s reinstatement “would lead to chaos and tumult” and thus harm the public interest, the justices said, frowning on the argument by defendant Ahmad Daraldik, who presided over the no-confidence vote and succeeded Denton.

“A Senator who uses his influence in Student Government to silence the message of a fellow student, simply because of his disagreement with that message, offends the very principles upon which our Republic was founded, as well as those enshrined in FSU’s Constitution by the Student Body which he purports to serve,” the ruling said.

The justices declined to penalize Daraldik for failing in his duty during the proceedings against Denton, but made clear their “leniency” was intended “as an opportunity to create a new environment in the Senate.” If it again tolerates “discriminatory remarks” such as those against Denton, the court won’t be as forgiving. (In contrast, the senate declined to remove Daraldik for his previous anti-Semitic comments.)

The Alliance Defending Freedom, the public interest law firm representing Denton, cheered the student court “for acting swiftly and decisively to reinstate Jack … and for acknowledging the violations of his constitutionally protected right to free speech.”

Unlike the federal judge who upheld the heckler’s veto issued by the senate against its president, the Student Supreme Court correctly recognized that refusing to reinstate Denton “would only deter participation” in student government, the group said.

Defendant ignored ‘red flags’ in proceedings

Denton’s case was only heard by the Student Supreme Court a week ago, more than four months after his removal. The Alliance Defending Freedom told The College Fix that the court reached out to the group about “moving forward” on Oct. 9. It filed an updated complaint Oct. 14, with oral argument Oct. 19.

The student government refused to fill a vacancy on the court before adjourning this summer, apparently to prevent Denton’s appeal from being heard as his term approached its end this fall.

Senator Kundhavi Gnanam (left), who initiated Denton’s ousting by sharing his private messages from a Catholic Student Union group chat, explicitly opposed the nominee to fill the vacancy, Abby Salter, for fear of how she would rule in Denton’s case.

“Since there is such a sensitive case on the docket it is very concerning what the repercussion of this could be,” Gnanam said. “I don’t feel comfortable having her preside over this case.” Salter was never appointed, as shown by the roster of justices.

In retrospect, Gnanam correctly perceived that a full court would not look kindly on the senate’s removal of Denton for privately expressing his religious views with co-religionists. It agreed with him on every point.

In one of the more sarcastic passages, the ruling purports to describe the senate’s beliefs. “[W]ith its robust network of student advocates and their vast knowledge of public policy and the everchanging mores of society, [the student government] possesses such authority as to decide in which cases the United States Constitution is to apply, and in which cases it is not.”

MOREDenton sues FSU officials for removal over Catholic views

Taxpayer-funded Florida State incorporates constitutional rights into its “own body of laws,” so the court was primarily tasked with determining whether the senate violated Denton’s constitutional rights. He claimed that Daraldik, his successor who presided over the no-confidence vote, violated FSU anti-discrimination policies and the Student Government Association ethics code.

Citing the “publicly-available video recordings” from senate meetings, the justices said the facts weren’t in dispute. In response to Denton’s private comments that “transgenderism,” abortion and police-defunding efforts violated Catholic doctrine, senators voted to remove him for his “abhorrent,” “hurtful” and subjectively offensive beliefs.

The ruling makes the same legal citations that are common in federal court rulings on First Amendment issues. It’s clear that Denton’s removal was due to “state action” by a “state actor,” the student senate, and that Daraldik is the proper defendant in Denton’s complaint.

As president pro tempore, Daraldik “exercised power over the actions of the Senate Body, including the vote, and failed in his statutory duty to ensure that University policies, as well as federal laws, were followed,” the court said, agreeing with Denton’s argument. This happened “even after claims of Constitutional violations were brought to his attention.”

And Daraldik (right) was no mere figurehead. He had “sole authority” over the motion to remove Denton, served as gatekeeper for senators to speak, ensured compliance with the “debate structure,” and then “declare[d] the vote,” the ruling said.

Senators repeatedly made clear they knew they were punishing Denton for exercising his First Amendment rights, as he kept saying, yet Daraldik ignored these “red flags.” Daraldik himself admitted he thought the first failed no-confidence vote “might have been improper,” yet he ignored repeated “notice” that Denton’s rights were under threat.

‘We do not think any right guaranteed by the Constitution is unsubstantial’

From the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on press freedom in Sullivan to its decision in favor of tax credits for religious education this year in Espinoza, federal case law is unambiguously in favor of Denton, the justices said.

Citing the Masterpiece ruling in favor of a Christian cake shop owner who refused to make a gay-marriage cake, the ruling explains that Denton’s group-chat messages “fit precisely into the category of religious expression that is protected under the United States Constitution.”

He was clearly not speaking as a public official in private discussions with the Catholic Student Union, whose purpose is to “promote the teachings of the Catholic Church.” Denton didn’t refer to “the Senate or Student Government Association once.”

Removing Denton for this private group chat also “caused an injury that would most certainly deter reasonable persons from continuing to engage in that activity in the future,” the justices said.

Going further than Judge Winsor’s opinion, the ruling said that Denton suffered “irreparable harm” due to the loss of his First Amendment freedoms for an “even minimal” period of time:

Less than 72 hours passed between the time Plaintiff sent his initial comments in the CSU group chat and the June 5th vote of no-confidence that removed him. In fact, the first vote brought against him took place the very same day. 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.

The court would be “encouraging the suppression of religious ideas … and discouraging students who hold such beliefs from participating” in the Florida State community if it upheld the senate’s action.

MOREFlorida State SGA refuses to let Denton appeal his removal

The justices mocked Daraldik’s argument that Denton wasn’t actually removed for his religious beliefs, but rather the “public outcry” against the failed first vote of no-confidence, which led some senators to change their votes the second time. Denton’s replacement has not shown “any reason” Denton might have been removed other than his group-chat comments.

The senator who made the motion for removal disparaged Denton’s faith in two ways: calling his comments “abhorrent” and describing them as “rhetoric,” implying they were “insubstantial and even insincere,” the ruling said. The senate did not act as a “neutral decisionmaker,” but revealed during debate that senators were “neither tolerant nor respectful” of Denton’s beliefs.

Finally, the senate told Denton to choose between his religious beliefs and his office. It has “placed a moratorium on religious beliefs similar to” Denton’s, violating his free exercise, the justices said. They again mocked Daraldik’s argument that senators must give constituents “what they deserve”: That would mean “the loudest voices in the room” decide every vote.

The Student Supreme Court must reinstate Denton to ensure that a similar removal “does not occur to any student at FSU in the future.” This is not simply a “short-term” issue of “maintaining order” in student government, the ruling said: His colleagues’ objections to his views cannot be allowed “to dictate his participation in Student Government.”

Justices noted that the “chaos and tumult” prediction has not come to pass in the four-plus months since Denton’s removal. He has continued to serve as a senator, just not senate president, and “continues to work cordially with his colleagues in the Senate to this day.” Some senators have apologized for how they treated Denton, and even Daraldik was “visibly moved” by one such apology.

The opinion concludes by rebuking Daraldik’s argument that restoring Denton to office so close to his term’s end would be “unsubstantial”:

The harm inflicted on both Plaintiff and the integrity of our entire Student Government Association continues to this day. … Plaintiff has been penalized for nearly five months. The only remedy he seeks is to return to the position to which he was duly elected by his peers. We do not think that any right guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States is unsubstantial.

MOREFSU Senate president removed for privately stating Catholic teaching

MOREDenton lawyers up as successor beats removal for anti-Semitic posts

IMAGES: Alliance Defending Freedom, Florida State University

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg Piper served as associate editor of The College Fix from 2014 to 2021.