Jack Denton, now a second-year law student at UNC, garnered national attention when he took legal action against Florida State University in 2020 after being removed from his student government position for expressing his beliefs in a private group chat. 

Denton grew up in Charlotte but returned to his family’s home state of Florida, where he attended Florida State University and earned his bachelor’s degree in political science. On June 3, 2020, the summer before his senior year at FSU, Denton entered a personal hell that turned his world upside down and drew the nation’s attention. 

In June of 2020, the summer before Denton’s senior year, shortly after the shooting of George Floyd, Jack Denton, president of the student senate, was part of a private “GroupMe” chat with other catholic students. Shortly after the George Floyd incident, someone had put a video concerning the incident into the group chat. 

“Everyone should be aware that BlackLivesMatter.com, Reclaim the Block, and the ACLU all advocate for things that are explicitly anti-Catholic,” said Denton in the group chat.  

When another student in the chat asked him to clarify, he continued. “BlackLivesMatter.com fosters a ‘queer affirming network’ and defends transgenderism,” wrote Denton.  “The ACLU defends laws protecting abortion facilities and sued states that restrict abortion access.”

“Reclaim the Block claims less police will make our communities safer and advocates for cutting PDs’ budgets. This is a little less explicit, but I think it is contrary to the Church’s teaching on the common good,” said Denton.

Denton respectfully expressed his opinion and informed other Catholic students.   

 “I don’t mean to anger anyone–I know this is a very emotional topic,” he continued. “However, it is important to know what you are supporting when you are Catholic.”

He explained that choosing to do nothing rather than inform his fellow students of the facts, students who shared his faith, would be a sin of omission. So, Denton felt compelled to speak up. That very night the student senate met for a regularly scheduled meeting.

During the meeting, Denton was utterly blindsided by a call for a vote for his removal. He said that most of the senate was caught off guard, aside from the person who called for the vote and a few others. While the initial vote failed, another vote was held two nights later, and Denton was voted out 33-3. 

According to the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the firm that handled Denton’s case. Denton appealed his removal to the student Supreme Court on June 18, 2020.  Having been advised to seek legal counsel Denton spoke with ADF lawyers and on July 22, 2020 ADF sent a letter to FSU’s Vice President of Student Affairs, Dr. Amy Hecht. 

“It started off miserable that first night, that Wednesday evening, after the first vote,” Denton told the Carolina Journal in an interview. “I knew it was coming because I had already seen the stuff on social media that night. And I mean, it was miserable. I virtually got no sleep that night. I also got like cold sweats. [But], I got a lot of relief by going to members of the Catholic Student Union.”

He said the Brotherhood of Hope, a Catholic brotherhood that ran a men’s group inside the Catholic Student Union and FSU, gave him much encouragement. 

 “It was very stressful,” said Denton, explaining that he had hope as soon as he knew he had someone in his corner, because he could not navigate the law by himself.

On August 31, 2020 a federal lawsuit was filed by Jack Denton and the ADF.

The federal court issued an order granting a preliminary injunction on October 9, 2020. Just a couple weeks later on October 26, Denton was reinstated as president of the Student Senate while his federal case Denton v. Thrasher was ongoing. 

“The lawsuit alleged both a free speech claim and a free exercise claim,” Tyson Langhofer, Denton’s lawyer on the lawsuit and Sr. Counsel and Director of the Center for Academic Freedom for the ADF, told the Carolina Journal. “In the Order Granting the Motion for Preliminary Injunction, the Court only ruled on the free speech claim. The Court determined that it was unnecessary to rule on the free exercise claim because it had already granted the injunction on free speech grounds.”

On May 26, 2021, FSU entered a settlement agreement with Denton. Under the agreement, FSU agreed to issue a statement “affirming the school’s commitment to protecting students’ First Amendment rights on campus, especially in student government,” according to ADF. FSU also agreed to restore Denton’s lost wages and pay him $10,000 in damages and nearly $85,000 in attorney’s fees. 

“I knew when I sued FSU that was going to follow me forever, right?” Denton admitted. “It’s my life. I mean, that’s a lawsuit that I have talked about now. Yeah, it’s in my record almost. But I mean, it was the right thing to do. I knew if someone wouldn’t stand up to university administrators who just let this stuff happen that it’s going to keep happening to other religious students and anyone who speaks their mind and, you know, doesn’t cow-tow to the orthodoxy of the university. I wanted to make a statement. I wanted to let the university know that students can be religious, they can speak their minds and they can participate in student government with them freely.” 

“Our First Amendment rights are so foundational; they are what make America great,” said Denton. “Since I’ve started law school, I’ve done everything I can to learn more about the First Amendment, but that experience gave me a much deeper appreciation for First Amendment rights.”

Denton received his bachelor’s degree in political science from FSU and interned for then-candidate Thom Tillis in his campaign for US Senate in 2014. Denton has been interested in law since middle school, so while law school has long been a part of his plan, his experience with FSU solidified his interest in obtaining his Juris Doctor. 

“Jack’s case was important because it was one of the first cases to rule that a student government official cannot be removed from office for engaging in protected speech,” said Langhofer. “I believe that this has definitely resulted in a beneficial change to the way that universities are treating the speech and religious rights of their students.”

Shortly after the settlement, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that prevents unconstitutional delays when universities violate students’ free speech rights. 

“I think the way the lawsuit impacted the whole experience was just affirming my interest in letting me know, like, I need to do this,” said Denton. “I definitely know that I want to be a litigator. […]I know I mean, I want to be the best attorney I can possibly be. I’m just looking forward to being able to practice law from the get-go when I get out of law school.” 

Denton and his wife, Emily, hope to move back to the Charlotte area after he graduates law school.