Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) has agreed to pay a former graduate student $80,000 to settle a lawsuit in which she alleged the university discriminated against her for being an outspoken Christian.
The settlement was announced by the nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom on Wednesday.
ADF attorneys filed the lawsuit on behalf of Maggie DeJong against university officials in May 2022 for violating her civil and constitutional rights. DeJong claimed she was singled out because her Christian views differed from those of her fellow students.
According to court documents, Dejong graduated last year.
While a graduate student in SIUE’s Art Therapy program, DeJong 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.
In February 2022, those officials issued three 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 conflict between Dejong and the other three students stemmed from discussions concerning politics and social issues. Topics included the Kenosha, Wisc., case of acquitted shooting suspect Kyle Rittenhouse, Black Lives Matter, and Marxism, according to court documents.
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 ADF alleges the university closed its investigation of DeJong, but not before violating her First Amendment rights and tarnishing her reputation because of her beliefs.
In March, a federal district court largely rejected the university’s attempt to dismiss her lawsuit.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois wrote in its decision in DeJong v. Pembrook that “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 from school officials.”
In addition to the one-time payment, university officials also agreed in the settlement to revise both their policies and student handbook to ensure students with varying political, religious, and ideological views are welcome in its art therapy program. Another part of the settlement also requires three professors at the university to attend mandatory First Amendment training from ADF attorneys.
“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 in a press release.
“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,” Hoffman added.
James T. Minor, chancellor of the institution, reaffirmed SIUE’s commitment to upholding a person’s First Amendment rights in a statement.
“SIUE is unequivocally committed to protecting First Amendment rights and does not have policies that restrict free speech or support censorship,” said Minor, who became chancellor in 2022.
“I trust that most people who care about these issues will see beyond the sensationalism of clickbait, media reports, and headlines in search of a more complete understanding of the facts,” he said.