Montana State University student settles free speech lawsuit against campus
Plaintiff alleged violations over sorority’s ‘insistence’ on preferred pronouns
A Montana State University student who filed a lawsuit alleging free speech violations after she questioned her sorority’s “insistence” members identify themselves with preferred pronouns has settled the case against the campus.
In January, Daria Danley sued MSU, its president and director of the Office of Institutional Equity, along with the commissioner of higher education. Danley argued a no-contact order MSU had imposed on her without an end date or due process infringed on her rights.
In the settlement agreement filed last week in U.S. District Court of Montana in Helena, the Bozeman campus agreed to end its no-contact order, and Danley agreed to dismiss the case.
Danley’s lawyer, Matthew Monforton, touted the settlement as an acknowledgement by the campus that it had erred.
“The fact that MSU is caving in on its no-contact order is an admission that they know it’s unconstitutional,” Monforton said in a phone call.
However, MSU said in an email it agreed to settle the matter in order to avoid a lengthy and public court battle and best serve its students. The settlement agreement said it admits no liability or wrongdoing.
“Montana State University has accepted this settlement as a conciliatory mechanism to best serve the interests of our students,” said Michael Becker, on behalf of MSU. “Rather than engaging in protracted litigation and a public debate of this matter, we have taken steps to allow the involved students to return to the privacy of their normal lives and to focus on their education.”
Danley filed the lawsuit after she questioned her sorority leader about using preferred pronouns, and about an alleged stalking by another sorority student who is LGBTQ, the complaint said.
As a result, MSU punished Danley for “hate speech” and imposed the no-contact order, which prohibited her from attending sorority events or entering a building where her alleged harasser was present, the lawsuit said.
The complaint said MSU was illegally silencing speech “that might be deemed offensive to LGBTQ students” in violation of the First Amendment. It said the campus was giving Danley no way out of the no-contact order and didn’t go through due process in imposing it.
The settlement notes the no-contact order was dated September 2021.
“MSU has rejected repeated requests by the victim to rescind the order and has never explained why the order remains necessary or elaborated on why it was imposed in the first place,” the lawsuit said. “Nor has MSU ever given the victim a hearing to challenge the order.”
The complaint also said MSU punished Danley despite its duty to ensure policies don’t discriminate based on political ideas.
Monforton said Danley had a way out, but it would have meant she would have had to compromise her principles, so she refused.
“Daria could have taken the easy way out by submitting to MSU’s diversity re-education training program,” Monforton said. “Instead, she spoke truth to power and stood her ground and forced MSU’s woke mob to back down.
“Daria is a courageous young woman, and it’s been an honor representing her.”
The original complaint said Alpha Gamma Delta evicted Danley at MSU’s suggestion, but the sorority’s national headquarters reinstated her. It said Danley wanted to continue to be involved in the national sorority despite getting into a “bad” local chapter, since dissolved.
In a 2017 lawsuit, MSU had to pay a $120,000 settlement after another student alleged a violation of free speech, according to Danley’s complaint. Erik Powell was suspended for being critical of a transgender student to a professor in a private meeting, the complaint said.
“Federal civil rights lawsuits seem to be the only way to get MSU to respect students’ constitutional rights,” Monforton said.
The settlement between Danley and MSU notes the parties will bear their own costs and fees in the case.
In his email about the settlement, Becker said the campus backs its Office of Institutional Equity.
“Montana State University stands by its policies and procedures and the work of the MSU Office of Institutional Equity for its careful attention to this case,” Becker said.
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