Attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a lawsuit on behalf of a graduate student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, alleging the school violated her civil and constitutional rights when it tried to regulate her religious and political speech on and off campus.
The June 7 suit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois on behalf of Maggie DeJong, who earned a master of arts degree in SIUE’s art therapy counseling program in May, says DeJong was unconstitutionally targeted without the ability to defend herself. Three students complained to the school about the religious and political views she posted to social media and expressed during discussions with other students in and outside of class.
In February, according to ADF, university officials issued an order against DeJong that prohibited her from “any contact” or “indirect communication” with the three fellow graduate students on or off campus. The students had complained that her opinions constituted “harassment” and “discrimination.”
“It is a sad day for civil dialogue and freedom of speech when universities can issue gag orders like those issued against Maggie for nothing more than expressing her beliefs—beliefs held by millions of Americans,” ADF Senior Counsel Gregg Walters said in a statement.
The university had threatened disciplinary action against DeJong if she violated the orders. Further, the director of the art therapy program sent an email to more 30 students publicly confirming DeJong was being investigated and that she was guilty of “misconduct” and “oppressive acts,” which was a violation of university confidentiality policies, ADF says.
On March 10, after receiving a letter from ADF, university officials dropped their investigation of DeJong.
The lawsuit seeks judgment declaring the school violated DeJong’s constitutional free speech rights and the school’s own anti-harassment policies while also denying DeJong due process. The suit also seeks “compensatory, nominal and punitive” damages plus attorney fees and court costs.
“Rather than accept and embrace diverse ideological perspectives, SIUE officials are determined to force their graduate students to think and speak exactly the same—or stay silent—and they will punish anyone who steps out of line,” Walters said. “Maggie has always respectfully shared her religious or political views, which every student is entitled to do under the First Amendment.”
The lawsuit states in part: “There is a famous expression used to describe the free-speech protection guaranteed by the First Amendment: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’
“But our nation’s public universities don’t uphold that principle today. Instead, their message is often the opposite: ‘I not only disapprove of what you say, but I will keep you from saying it.’
“And that’s what this case is about: the unconstitutional, censorious actions of officials at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE).”
Photo: Alliance Defending Freedom