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Supreme Court of the United States

Why This Student Was Canceled for a Catholic Message

By Maureen Collins posted on:
May 26, 2021

It has been said that difficult circumstances don’t create character but reveal it. 

That is certainly true of Jack Denton, a former student at Florida State University. 

After privately expressing his beliefs in a Catholic group chat, Jack was subjected to a seven-hour Zoom call where fellow students called his Catholic views “a cult mindset” and “vile” and called for him to be removed from his position as president of the Student Senate.  

“We spent seven hours listening to about 100 students calling for my removal as Student Senate President,” Jack said. “Every organization on campus, just about, published a message condemning me for expressing my Catholic faith.”

But despite the vitriol directed toward him, Jack treated every person involved with dignity and respect from the very beginning. Not only that, but Jack stood by his words—an expression of his Catholic faith—despite enormous pressure. 

And that stand ultimately paid off.

Read more about Jack’s story below. 

Who: Jack Denton 

Jack Denton was studying political science at Florida State University. On top of his coursework, Jack was involved in the Catholic Student Union and served in the FSU Student Senate for three years. In the fall of 2019, Jack was elected president of the Student Senate. 

But after eight months of service, he was forced out of his position. What happened? 

When school went online due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, Jack and other members of the Catholic Student Union turned to a group chat to stay in touch and share prayer requests. 
One day, a student sent a video to the private group chat. Because the video would generate funds for BlackLivesMatter.com , the ACLU, and Reclaim the Block—organizations that promote explicitly anti-Catholic policies—Jack knew he needed to speak up. 

Because Jack’s faith is important to him—and because he is a kind-hearted and decent person—he had to make sure his friends in the group chat knew what they might be supporting.

Jack Denton's message in the Catholic student chat

 

As you can see, Jack expressed no ill will or malice. He simply expressed his beliefs lovingly to his friends in private. 

In normal times, this would not be an issue. But unfortunately, we don’t live in normal times. We live in the time of the cancel culture mob. 

What: Denton v. Hecht 

Someone in the private group message shared a screenshot of Jack’s words with members of the Student Senate. Then, student senators took Jack’s messages out of context, shared them online, calling him “transphobic” and “racist.” 

When members of the Student Senate initially held a vote to remove Jack from his position, they didn’t achieve the votes needed to do so. But it didn’t end there. 

Two days later, the student senators held a seven-hour zoom call where many students berated Jack, calling him terrible names and accusing him of bigotry. Jack sat and politely listened to all of it. 

Then the Student Senate had another vote. This time, Jack was removed from his position as president. 

But here’s the problem: FSU is a public university. That means, every part of the university, including the Student Senate, is bound by the Constitution—and in particular, the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious freedom and free speech.

Jack was removed from his position because he expressed his religious beliefs. That’s a clear violation of the First Amendment. So, with the help of attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, Jack challenged this unconstitutional action. 

When: July—present 

On July 22, ADF attorneys sent a letter to Florida State administrators asking them to address the unconstitutional retaliation against Jack. Unfortunately, Jack’s appeals to administrators and fellow students didn’t change the situation. So, on August 31, Jack filed a lawsuit against FSU. 

Thankfully, in October, a court acknowledged that Jack’s freedom of speech was violated and ordered FSU to pay him as president of the Student Senate while the lawsuit continues. And on October 26, FSU’s Student Supreme Court ordered Jack reinstated as the Student Senate President.

Now, Florida State University has agreed to settle this lawsuit and to issue a public statement affirming that student government is open to all students, no matter their religion. The school will also pay more than $11,000 in damages to Denton, and nearly $84,000 in attorneys’ fees.

This is a big victory for free speech on campus! 

Where: Tallahassee, Florida 

Jack recently graduated from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. 

Why: To protect the First Amendment freedoms of students on college campuses 

Students don’t give up their First Amendment rights when they enter a public university. All Jack did was share widely known Catholic beliefs with other Catholic students in a private group chat. The First Amendment protects his right to express his religious beliefs. 

Unfortunately, many college campuses have become places where the freedom of speech is not protected and students like Jack pay the price. 

The Bottom Line 

All students should be able to peacefully share their views with their peers without fear of punishment or retaliation. No one should be forced to silence their beliefs just to keep a job.

To stay up to date how ADF is defending free speech on campus, sign up for our newsletter.

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Maureen Collins

Maureen Collins

Digital Cultivation Manager

Maureen Collins serves as the Digital Cultivation Manager at Alliance Defending Freedom.


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