I recently sat down with three professors at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, but this time, it was I who was doing the teaching. We discussed the fundamental rights enshrined in the First Amendment that protect every American’s freedom to share her personal beliefs, without fear of government punishment, and the important role universities play in protecting those freedoms. The professors were required to attend the free speech training as part of the agreement we reached with SIUE officials to settle a lawsuit brought by my client, Maggie DeJong.
While a graduate student in SIUE’s Art Therapy program, Maggie, like many other students, 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 Maggie’s views, which are 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.
Then, with no notice, those officials issued no-contact orders against Maggie, 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.”
We filed suit on Maggie’s behalf in May 2022 against university officials for violating her constitutional rights simply because she held views that differed from her fellow students.
But Maggie isn’t the only one to get slapped with an unlawful restriction of speech because university officials didn’t care for her opinions.
At the University of Idaho, three Christian law students and their faculty adviser filed suit last year against university officials for violating their First Amendment rights by punishing them because of the religious content and viewpoint of their speech. University officials similarly issued no-contact orders against Peter Perlot, Mark Miller, and Ryan Alexander, members of the Christian Legal Society chapter at the law school, and Professor Richard Seamon, CLS’s faculty advisor. The reason for such aggressive action? The students and their adviser had engaged in respectful exchanges with another law student about the biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality.
To make matters worse, when university officials issued the gag orders against the Christian students and professors, they did not even give them an opportunity to review the allegations against them or defend themselves.
Far too often, college administrators feel the need to “correct” protected speech they deem offensive by using disproportionate, not to mention unlawful, measures. That censorship has an immense chilling effect. Maggie, Peter, Mark, and Ryan did not know what behavior or speech caused the order to be issued, so they naturally refrained from expressing any idea some might subjectively find controversial.
Furthermore, when universities respond to student complaints by immediately slapping on no-contact orders — regardless of whether the situation actually justifies such an action — they teach college students to behave like children. Rather than sorting out any issues with fellow classmates, students can just run to college administrators who will apply strong (and unconstitutional) medicine in an attempt to fix interpersonal disagreements. Indeed, universities are sending a clear message to students: If you hear someone say something you don’t like or that offends you, just come to the administration; we’ll take care of it.
At the risk of aging myself, I miss the good ol’-fashioned days of simply unfollowing a person on Instagram or — gasp! — actually going to her directly to share how her opinion affected you. You know, dealing with conflict and disagreements like grown-ups, which is what these students will have to do for the rest of their lives with their own families, friends, and colleagues.
As a result of Maggie’s courage in filing suit, SIUE agreed to take critical steps to comply with the U.S. Constitution and move closer to accepting and embracing true diversity of thought and speech. We also successfully settled the case on behalf of Peter, Mark, Ryan, and Professor Seamon, and University of Idaho officials agreed to drop the no-contact orders against them.
But it shouldn’t take a lawsuit for universities to respect students’ First Amendment rights and want to foster a truly diverse learning environment. After all, it completely defeats the purpose of a university for administrators to pick and choose the winners and losers in campus debate.
Public universities should put their Title IX offices to good use — proper use — and ensure every student’s civil and constitutional rights are protected, whether or not the administration agrees with the viewpoint and content of the student’s speech.