Western Kentucky University's Student Government Association council decided against censuring an SGA senator for criticizing the university's president.
Kelsey Luttrell, chief justice of SGA's Judicial Council, announced the council's decision and her resignation Wednesday.
"Given the facts presented during the hearing and from our research during the investigation, the Judicial Council has unanimously decided not to censure John Winstead as he has not engaged in any activities that are not protected by his First Amendment right to a freedom of speech," Luttrell said during the hearing.
Winstead, a senior from Nashville, originally learned of the hearing from an email from Luttrell.
“It has come to our attention that you allegedly held a sign stating ‘impeach Ransdell’ at the homecoming football game, and have posted a picture on Facebook expressing similar dissent against the president,” Luttrell wrote in the email informing Winstead he would face an "investigation in to these allegations" by the Judicial Council.
Luttrell said the hearing would take a different focus.
"As I began to investigate the allegation, no student came forward to testify as to what the student said or did during the ball game," she said. "This is a moot point and we will not discuss that during the hearing today. I did however find an image on his Facebook page."
The image, which was displayed for those attending the hearing to see, showed Winstead holding a picture of WKU President Gary Ransdell with a speech bubble that reads "Josef Stalin was a good Christian who did nothing wrong."
"I then found a comment where John Winstead was asked if President Ransdell did in fact say this," Luttrell said. "The student (Winstead) responded ... 'Given a post structuralist understanding of language, in some sense we all have.' "
Luttrell went on to explain the new purpose of the hearing.
"Our Judicial Council is investigating whether or not this image and subsequent response warrants a censure or whether it is protected by the student's freedom of speech," she said, then referencing the image and response as evidence before reading charges and asking how Winstead pleaded.
Winstead said the hearing sets a bad precedent for the SGA.
"Based on the bylaws as interpreted by the Judicial Council, any action can be made censurable so long as the majority of the Judicial Council disagrees with it," he said. "Does this mean that the Judicial Council will now be policing Facebook pages? Should senators start looking over their shoulders every time they make a politically charged joke or express disapproval of the administration?"
Winstead also claimed policies surrounding the issue were too vague.
"In conclusion, I am still unsure why I'm here today to defend myself when I have not broken any formal policies stated by the bylaws," he said. "Chief Justice Luttrell even admitted yesterday in the Senate Chambers that there is nothing that states what is censurable and what is not."
Following his statement, three of Winstead's supporters testified for him, including SGA President Jay Todd Richey.
"While I strongly believe that this investigation is unnecessary, I believe its motives were well-intentioned," he said. "In other words, determining what is professional behavior by a senator was the intention, but the perception is that a member of SGA is being put on trial for dissenting against President Ransdell."
Other defenders included Union senior Ian Robinson and Lousiville senior Laura Harper. Robinson attacked the absurdity of the hearing while Harper, a former public relations representative of the SGA, emphasized her efforts to reform a campus speech policy.
Justices followed up the testimony with a brief question session before leaving the room to deliberate, while attending students discussed the hearing among themselves.
Independence sophomore Molly Couch, who is Facebook friends with Winstead, said the reasons for the hearing were vague.
"It's weird that why he was brought here was so vague and unspecific," she said.
SGA Sen. Francis Wilson, a freshman from Akron, Ohio, also supported Winstead because "we have rights that keep our free speech in place."
"I totally agree with everyone's right to speech as long as it's not violent," he said.
After deliberating, Luttrell read a closing statement explaining the decision.
"In years prior the Judicial Council has been inactive, and per the request of the Senate we were asked to be more active this year," she said, adding that the council felt it was acting according to policy.
"As a result, we've been publicly ridiculed not only by the student body, but by members of SGA," she said.
Luttrell announced she was stepping down as chief justice, ending her five-month tenure in that role.
"So with the lack of support from fellow SGA members, faculty, staff, for those reasons among many others, I will step down as chief justice effective at the end of the semester.”
Richey said he was surprised to hear Luttrell's resignation.
"It was unexpected, but it was her prerogative to do so," Richey said in a text message. "We have an institutionalized method of succession for the chief justice position, but Kelsey's diligence and dedication to both her position and the WKU Student Government Association will be missed."
Judy Rohrer, director of the Institute for Citizenship and Social Responsibility, described Winstead as an "exemplary" student activist. Rohrer said she was happy with the decision, but said Luttrell's concern about public ridicule of SGA is misplaced "because John actually should have never been made to defend his free speech."
"A hearing like this sets a chilling environment for any kind of critique or dissent at WKU for students, staff and faculty," she said.
Winstead later thanked his supporters on his Facebook page.
"I hope that people take away from this is that you have nothing to fear when you voice your dissent. Don't be afraid to speak truth to power (or in my case jokes to power)."