Attorneys, university reach settlement in case filed on behalf of former grad student
Attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) will conduct a First Amendment training session with three professors at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville as part of the successful settlement of a former art therapy graduate student’s lawsuit.
As part of the settlement, university officials also agreed to revise both their policies and student handbook to ensure students with varying political, religious, and ideological views are welcome in the art therapy program. In addition, university officials paid $80,000.
Former SIUE art therapy graduate student Maggie DeJong filed suit against the officials for violating her civil and constitutional rights, claiming that it was because she holds views that differed from many of her fellow students. In March, a federal district court rejected the university’s request to dismiss the lawsuit.
In an official statement published by ADF, it was noted that DeJong, while a graduate student in SIUE’s Art Therapy program, had posted materials to her social media accounts, sent messages to fellow students, and engaged in class discussions on an array of topics, including religion, politics, critical race theory, COVID-19 regulations, and censorship. “But because DeJong’s views— informed by her Christian faith and political stance—often differed from those of other students in the art therapy program, several of her fellow students reported her speech to university officials,” the statement further read. “In February 2022, those officials issued no-contact orders against DeJong, prohibiting her from having ‘any contact’ or even ‘indirect communication’ with three fellow graduate students who complained that her expression of religious and political viewpoints constituted ‘harassment’ and ‘discrimination.’
The statement from ADF further stated that, “Two weeks after receiving a letter from ADF informing the university that stifling DeJong’s speech based on her viewpoint is unconstitutional, officials finally disclosed the materials underlying the no-contact orders and related investigation. That same day, the university closed its baseless investigation of DeJong, but not before violating her First Amendment rights and tarnishing her reputation because of her beliefs. As part of the settlement agreement, university officials agreed to revise their policies to ensure students have substantive and procedural protections from no-contact orders so no other student will have to endure the unlawful treatment DeJong experienced.”
In light of the settlement in DeJong v. Pembrook, ADF attorneys filed a stipulated dismissal of the suit on Wednesday, July 26, 2023.
SIUE Chancellor James T. Minor, Ph.D., shared the university’s official statement regarding this case at the request of the Illinois Business Journal on Monday, July 31, 2023.
In the statement entitled “SIUE Settles Lawsuit Alleging Violations of free Speech,” Chancellor Minor wrote:
“In May of 2022, SIUE was mentioned in several media reports following former graduate student Maggie DeJong’s lawsuit alleging that her First Amendment rights to free speech were violated. At that time, SIUE asserted our commitment to free speech. SIUE recently settled this case, but I believe it is important to underscore our institutional values and our unwavering defense of free speech. I trust that most people who care about these issues will see beyond the sensationalism of click bait, media reports, and headlines in search of a more complete understanding of the facts.
SIUE is unequivocally committed to protecting First Amendment rights and does not have policies that restrict free speech nor support censorship. SIUE remains committed to free speech, popular or unpopular, offensive or affable, in an environment that embraces the exchange of diverse views on every aspect of human society.
For decades, universities have embraced the challenge of vigorously protecting free speech while at the same time creating a safe learning environment for the expression of diverse views. Protecting these two principles can create tensions. For example, while the First Amendment protects free speech (no matter how offensive), it does not protect behavior on a campus that creates a pervasively hostile environment for other students. We accept that balancing these two deeply valued principles of free speech and a safe environment, in real time, represent inherent complications for administering prudence. This delicate balance also invites debate about where such a line should be drawn in each unique case that, today, also frequently involves the use of social media platforms. Protecting free speech is not only driven by our values, but also by our legal obligations, while at the same time ensuring a non-hostile environment.
University communities have the unique responsibility to protect Constitutional freedoms, to keep people safe, and to facilitate learning environments that prepare students for a range of professions and diverse work environments. We have the ability to develop the next generation of leaders who undoubtedly will have a vast spectrum of political, religious, and social convictions, and this is what makes universities so special.”