College administrators should be punished for restricting free speech

Opinion by Quin Hillyer, Washington Examiner, 6/2/22


When will public university officials finally learn that shutting down unwelcome speech is almost always illegal, indeed unconstitutional? When will university officials, both public and private, remember that most speech restrictions are not just wrong but malicious and malevolent?

Actual punishment, whether professional, financial, or legal, might help them learn and remember. Appropriately so.

Recent high-profile stories have shown the speech-chilling perfidy of administrators at Harvard and Princeton, all of whom, in a better world, would lose their jobs and future consideration for employment in academia. They at least enjoy private sector employment, though, which isn’t fully subject to First Amendment dictates.

Public university administrators can make no such dodge. On May 31, the legal aid group Alliance Defending Freedom filed suit on behalf of former graduate student Maggie DeJong against three officials of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville for violating the school’s policies and her constitutional free speech rights. The suit demands payment of damages inflicted on DeJong. The suit is entirely justified, and the defendants should suffer the consequences of their precipitous, preposterous actions.

DeJong was studying at SIUE for a master’s degree in art therapy. DeJong, a conservative Christian, took issue in class discussions and on social media with prevailing dogmas at the school, including negative stereotypes about white people, calls to defund the police, and support for censoring unwanted speech. She also took issue with “new age practices” that contradicted passages from the Bible. In doing so, DeJong made clear she was discussing ideas and beliefs while respecting the other person.

“I wanted to reiterate to you today how much I value you,” DeJong wrote during one set of more than 40 text message exchanges with a fellow student. “Even though we don’t agree. I see a beautiful heart and a compassion for children in you. A strong warrior. And honestly a hilarious personality that I think is so necessary when we find ourselves taking ourselves too seriously.”

And, for emphasis, “I just can’t express enough the goodness you bring and I didn’t want that to get washed out with our disagreement last night.”

Yet that student was one of three who complained to administrators that DeJong had “caused emotional harm” and was “not … able to identify any form of power or privilege you have over me.” Somehow, that refusal to identify her own “power or privilege” amounted to a “threat,” said the student, who nonetheless told DeJong that “you’re an amazing, kind, caring person.”

On the basis of DeJong’s refusal, despite her “kind, caring” nature, to back down from political and religious beliefs — such as, for example, reiterating her belief in Christianity rather than the self-proclaimed “Wicca” (witch) practices of two other students — the school officials issued “no-contact” orders against DeJong, prohibiting her from “any contact” or even “indirect communication” with the three fellow graduate students.

In a graduate program of just 10 students per class, it’s obviously all but impossible to avoid “indirect communication” with fellows in the very same classroom.

What’s worse, they issued the no-contact order without any prior notice that DeJong was under “investigation” or subject to any “complaint” whatsoever and without telling her the nature of the complaints. And despite university policy mandating confidentiality of investigations, the school officials sent an email to 30 recipients, including a dozen program alumni who might otherwise have provided professional opportunities to DeJong, referring to DeJong’s (alleged) “misconduct” and “oppressive acts.”

Thus, with no chance to defend herself or even be apprised of what exactly she was accused of doing wrong, DeJong was labeled an oppressor, told to avoid her classmates, and subject to nasty notes from alumni urging her not even to try finding a job in her chosen field.

The university eventually dropped the “no-contact” order after receiving a demand letter from ADF, but not before DeJong had suffered weeks of calumny (eventually including a public letter to the editor in which 52 people co-signed a denunciation of her), denial of her First Amendment rights, and threats to her plans for future livelihood.

And all of this, in the words of one complainant, “not because we think she, herself, is going to do anything to us, but more so this overall aura of the potential of being aggressed against based on your identity.”

Overall aura of the potential … Seriously? At a university where, by definition, the free flow of ideas is supposed to be encouraged?

These complaining students and faculty need to grow up. But not before the faculty who abused DeJong’s rights pay up under judicial orders.

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