- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2022

A Southern Illinois University Edwardsville graduate student sued the school Tuesday for civil rights violations after she was issued three “no-contact” orders involving peers who disagreed with her conservative and Christian beliefs.

Maggie DeJong “suffered sleeplessness, anxiety, chest pains, feelings of sadness, loss of appetite, weight loss, lack of concentration, harm to her reputation, and future loss of employment and wages” because of the orders involving the art therapy counseling major, her lawyers said.

Attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a public interest law firm representing Ms. DeJong, say the student’s views were “informed by her Christian faith and political stance” and were reported by at least three students to school officials.

The complaints resulted in the “no-contact” orders, which were copied to campus police.

The school did not give Ms. DeJong, 26, an opportunity to defend herself, and did not identify any policy or rule violation, the ADF attorneys said.

Ms. DeJong, 26, graduated this month.

The suit claims Megan A. Robb, the graduate director of the school’s art therapy counseling program, emailed “more than 30 students” in the program identifying Ms. DeJong as an investigative target who stood accused of “misconduct” and “oppressive acts.” 

SIUE rules require officials to “take all reasonable steps to ensure confidentiality” during such probes, the filing notes.

“University officials then sat on their hands as Defendant Robb, her student followers, and even alumni dragged Ms. DeJong’s reputation through the mud simply because she holds views on an array of topics that differ from those espoused in the echo chamber that is the SIUE Art Therapy Program,” the lawsuit alleges.

The no-contact orders, issued in February, ordered her to avoid “any contact” or even “indirect communication,” the complaint notes.

The orders came even though the school admitted that the paperwork was “not an indication of responsibility for a violation of University policy; rather, it is intended to prevent interactions that could be perceived by either party as unwelcome, retaliatory, intimidating, or harassing.”

According to her attorneys, Ms. DeJong shared her views via social media, direct messages to other students, and in class on topics including “religion, politics, critical race theory, COVID-19 regulations, and censorship.”

Those views apparently differed from those of her peers.

One outside observer of the case told The Washington Times the school isn’t on firm ground in this case.

“This is a public institution bound by the First Amendment, and there are serious allegations of unconstitutionality here and it will be very interesting to see how and if the university can answer,” said Will Creeley, legal director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). 

The school, he added, “is facing a very clear and forthright set of allegations and the documentation seems to be ample.”

Megan Wieser, spokeswoman for Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

ADF attorney Gregg Walters accused the school of ideological censorship.

“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,” Mr. Walters said in a statement.

“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,” he said.

Although the school later rescinded the orders, the lawsuit claims the school “acted with malice or a reckless and callous indifference” to her First Amendment right of free speech and her due process rights under the 14th Amendment.

The action seeks unspecified “compensatory, nominal, and punitive damages” for Ms. DeJong, as well as attorney’s fees. 

The ADF filing also asks the court to find that Ms. DeJong’s constitutional rights were violated and that the policies under which she was investigated are unconstitutional.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of attorney Gregg Walters.

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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