Federal judge progresses student lawsuit on viewpoint discrimination

A federal judge in Illinois last week decided to allow a former graduate student to sue officials at the Southern University of Illinois Edwardsville (SIUE) for violating her First Amendment rights.

A federal judge in Illinois last week decided to allow a former graduate student to sue officials at the Southern University of Illinois Edwardsville (SIUE) for violating her First Amendment rights.

Maggie DeJong, who studied art therapy at SIUE, expressed her Christian religious values and conservative political perspectives on social media, in student group chats, and in class conversations.

On February 10, 2022, DeJong was served with no contact orders from the University precluding her from any contact with three of her fellow students—including in classes. According to a letter sent on DeJong’s behalf to SIUE by her attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the no contact orders not only “offered no factual basis” for the school’s actions but also violated her rights to free expression at a public institution.

[RELATED: University may face legal action after issuing student a ‘no contact’ order for using ‘unwelcome’ speech]

When asked by Campus Reform what the final incident was that prompted DeJong’s compatriots to complain to the University administration, DeJong’s lawyer, Matthew Hoffmann of the Alliance Defending Freedom, said the inciting incident is still unknown.

“Even to this day not entirely clear what all pushed these students over the edge, but what is clear [is that] it was based on just Maggie’s opinion’s alone,” Hoffmann clarified.

Furthermore, SIUE officials broke University confidentiality policies when the Art Therapy Program Director, Megan Robb, informed over 30 of DeJong’s fellow students that she was under investigation for “misconduct” and “oppressive acts,” according to DeJong’s lawsuit filing from May 31, 2022.

Nearly one year later, Federal Judge Nancy Rosenstengel issued a judgement saying that DeJong has a case against SIUE that will now be able to proceed to a potential trial.

“DeJong clearly has the right, as enshrined in the First Amendment, to express her religious, political, and social views on her personal social media account and to engage in mutual conversations with fellow students regarding those opinions without fear of retaliation,” Rosenstengel wrote.

When asked how this ordeal has made her feel, DeJong told Campus Reform that, although it has been emotionally challenging, she hopes her struggle can “give courage” to others.

“I think that it was very difficult to go through, and knowing how difficult it was for me and the pain I went through, that is why I want to take a stand for myself, because what happened was wrong and it shouldn’t happen to anyone else,” DeJong said.

[RELATED: REPORT: Percentage of universities restricting free speech rose this year]

Hoffman added, “This case is important because Maggie was brave, courageous, and took a stand against a culture on campus that was an echo chamber and that didn’t tolerate dissenting viewpoints, and I hope this case will serve as an example to embolden other students who think like Maggie does to also be able to express their opinions and kind of return the college to be accepting of a diversity of viewpoints and the marketplace of ideas as it’s supposed to be.”

Since her graduation from SIUE, DeJong has successfully worked as an Art Therapist at a safe house for sex trafficking survivors.

DeJong’s advice for conservatives who fear speaking about their beliefs in public settings is “to ensure that everything you do is done in grace and love, but paired with truth …. [I]t’s not an easy road, but as long as you are taking a stand with grace and with love and with truth, I think that there’s peace to that.”

SIUE declined Campus Reform’s request to comment on pending litigation.

Follow Gabrielle M. Etzels on Twitter.