Christian student challenges university’s no-contact order
The public university tried to silence her religious views, the student says
A graduate student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville sued the school last week for prohibiting her from interacting with three fellow students whose religious and political views differed from her own.
Maggie DeJong, an art therapy student at the public university in Edwardsville, Ill., filed her lawsuit in federal court Tuesday. According to the complaint, the Edwardsville school issued a “no-contact order” in February after other students reported DeJong’s social media posts and direct messages to university officials, claiming she harassed and discriminated against them. DeJong’s posts included her opinions on topics such as religion, politics, critical race theory, COVID-19 regulations, and censorship. Under the order, DeJong was prohibited from contact or “indirect communication” with the three fellow students both on and off campus. She was informed that she would be subject to “disciplinary consequences” if she did not comply.
The school rescinded the no-contact order March 10 after receiving a letter from DeJong’s attorneys. During the 18 days the order was in effect, she “self-censored her speech and limited her movements out of fear that university officials would find that her speech or movements constituted ‘any contact’ or ‘indirect communication,’” the lawsuit stated.
The suit also says the university opened an investigation into DeJong’s behavior though she was never informed what law or school policy she had broken. Her classmates received an email saying school officials were investigating her for misconduct and “oppressive acts” — a disclosure that DeJong contends violated the university’s confidentiality policy.
Megan Robb, the director of the art therapy program and a defendant in the case, stated that DeJong was entitled to her own opinions, but only so long as they did not cause harm to other students, according to the complaint. The lawsuit claims that a social justice emphasis and “anti-oppressive framework” informs the curriculum of the art therapy program, creating an environment in which DeJong’s views were seen as oppressive and harmful. Students who reported DeJong to university administrators allegedly did so at Robb’s direction.
Represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, DeJong argues the university violated her free speech rights. “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,” ADF senior counsel Gregg Walters said in a statement. He added that DeJong expressed her religious and political views respectfully, both in the classroom and online.
Earlier this year, several law students at the University of Idaho received similar no-contact orders after disagreeing with a fellow student about Biblical marriage and sexuality. In the past, such orders were typically reserved for instances of sexual harassment or threats of violence.
Left-leaning groups have historically advocated for free speech on college and university campuses, going back to civil rights demonstrations and Vietnam War protests in the 1960s. The American Civil Liberties Union, once such a staunch defender of free speech that it defended members of the Ku Klux Klan, now says it does not support speech that “creates a pervasively hostile environment for vulnerable students.” Determining whether speech qualifies as harassment is a legal question that should be examined on a case-by-case basis, the organization says.
The handling of speech on college and university campuses has become increasingly contentious in recent years. In 2019, Duke Law created a public Campus Speech Database to provide a “comprehensive overview of campus speech issues emerging on the American landscape.” The database includes information on speech-related incidents that involve both students and faculty. Duke intends it to be a resource for universities dealing with speech disputes on campus.
At Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, DeJong is seeking damages caused by the school’s actions, including compensation for emotional and physical distress, harm to her reputation, and future loss of employment and wages. More broadly, the complaint asks that the court declare unconstitutional the university’s use of the no-contact order and its definition of discriminatory harassment.