EDWARDSVILLE - Three Southern Illinois University Edwardsville professors will undergo First Amendment rights training following a former student’s lawsuit that argued SIUE violated her right to free speech.
Last week, SIUE settled a lawsuit with Maggie DeJong, a former arts therapy graduate student at the university. In “DeJong v. Pembrook,” DeJong argued that SIUE violated her right to free speech in February 2022 by issuing no-contact orders on behalf of three students who said DeJong’s comments and social media posts constituted “harassment” and “discrimination.”
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The settlement stipulates that three SIUE professors must participate in First Amendment rights training. SIUE also paid $80,000 to DeJong and must revise its policies and student handbook to address how they will handle differing viewpoints in the art therapy program going forward.
“SIUE is unequivocally committed to protecting First Amendment rights and does not have policies that restrict free speech nor support censorship,” SIUE Chancellor James T. Minor wrote in a press release. “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.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represented DeJong in the case, will provide First Amendment training to the SIUE professors. In their arguments, ADF said that DeJong expressed her views like many other students through social media, direct messages and class discussions.
“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,” ADF said in a statement.
In February 2022, the University issued no-contact orders that limited DeJong’s contact with three students in the art therapy program. ADF argued that these orders “barred [DeJong] from fully participating in classes” or group chats with the students and also caused her to be “chilled in her ability to frequent campus for fear of encountering one of the named individuals and being accused of violating the no-contact orders.”
They went on to argue that DeJong had not done anything that warranted the no-contact orders. SIUE attempted to get the lawsuit dismissed, but the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois rejected the move for dismissal in March 2023.
The court agreed with the defendants that DeJong lacked standing to challenge SIUE policies because she had already graduated at the time of the lawsuit, so these policies no longer applied to her. However, the court decided that DeJong did have standing to pursue declaratory relief, which would acknowledge that the no-contact orders were a violation of her rights.
“A declaration that the [no-contact orders] violated her First Amendment rights would affirm her entitlement to damages,” the court wrote in their decision. “Thus, the declaratory relief sought regarding the [no-contact orders] — not the policies behind them — is permitted to proceed.”
Following the settlement, Minor issued a statement and reaffirmed SIUE’s commitment to freedom of speech.
“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,” Minor wrote. “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[.]”
ADF noted that DeJong has a right to free speech “like every other student.”
“Public universities can’t punish students for expressing their political and religious viewpoints. Maggie, like every other student, is protected under the First Amendment to respectfully share her personal beliefs, and university officials were wrong to issue gag orders and silence her speech,” said ADF Legal Counsel Mathew Hoffmann. “As a result of Maggie’s courage in filing suit, SIUE has agreed to take critical steps to comply with the law and the U.S. Constitution and move closer to accepting and embracing true diversity of thought and speech.”
It is unclear what changes will be made to SIUE policies and what will be involved in the First Amendment training session that three SIUE professors must attend as a part of the settlement. SIUE and ADF were both contacted for this article but had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.
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