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Christian grad sues after university took action for sharing her beliefs with classmates

Maggie DeJong
Maggie DeJong |

A conservative Christian student filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against officials at an Illinois university, alleging her civil rights were violated after the school issued three of her former classmates no-contact orders against her because of her religious and political beliefs. 

Maggie DeJong, a former graduate school student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville,said fellow students reported her to school officials after publicly expressing her Christian faith and conservative political views on her social media accounts and with classmates and peers in and out of the classrooms. 

DeJong, 26, was enrolled in SIUE's Art Therapy program and graduated in May.  

DeJong often shared her opinions on political and religious topics on her social media pages, in private messages with other students and while participating in-class discussions, according to the civil complaint

The political topics included critical race theory, Black Lives Matter, the criminal justice system, COVID-19 regulations, Marxism and censorship.

The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, claims that DeJong's conservative and Christian stances on the topics differed from those held by the program's faculty and students. 

"Under the Art Therapy Program's 'anti-oppressive framework' and calls for 'social justice,' Ms. DeJong's speech was often seen as 'harmful,'" the lawsuit reads. 

The lawsuit lists former Chancellor Randall G. Pembrook, the school's Director for Equal Opportunity, Access Jamie Ball and Art Therapy Counseling Graduate Program Director Megan Robb as defendants in their individual capacities. 

Robb allegedly told DeJong that she can express her viewpoints so long as they did not "harm" others," the legal filing notes. The lawsuit accuses Robb of directing and encouraging fellow art therapy students "to report Ms. DeJong's purportedly 'harmful,' and fully protected, speech to University officials." 

DeJong is represented by attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, a prominent conservative Christian legal advocacy group that has won religious freedom cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

"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," ADF Senior Counsel Gregg Walters wrote in a statement

"Maggie has always respectfully shared her religious or political views, which every student is entitled to do under the First Amendment. 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." 

The university issued the no-contact orders on Feb. 10, which were rescinded two weeks later. With the three no-contact orders, DeJong was prohibited from having "any contact" or even "indirect communication" contact with the three fellow art therapy graduate students who requested them.  

The lawsuit contends school officials didn't provide DeJong with any opportunity to defend herself and she wasn't told what the allegations against her entailed until a month later. 

University officials further "threatened" to take "disciplinary consequences" if DeJong violated the no-contact orders.

"There is a famous expression used to describe the free-speech protection guaranteed by the First Amendment: 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,'" the lawsuit reads. "But our nation's public universities don't uphold that principle today. Instead, their message is often the opposite: 'I not only disapprove of what you say, but I will keep you from saying it.'"

ADF contends that Robb violated the university's policy of disclosure, which required all officials to "take all reasonable steps to ensure confidentiality during an investigation of a student for alleged misconduct."  

The lawsuit accuses Robb of sending an email to over 30 students that confirmed DeJong was under investigation, accusing the student of "misconduct" and "oppressive acts."

"Ms. DeJong has 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," the lawsuit claims.

School officials rescinded the no-contact orders days after receiving a demand letter from DeJong's attorneys. 

It wasn't until a month after the no-contact orders were issued that officials revealed to DeJong the specific "materials underlying the orders and related investigation."

The Christian Post reached out to the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville for comment on the lawsuit. A response was not received by press time. 

"Rather than, for example, advise Student T.P. and the other complainants to ignore Ms. DeJong's speech they disagreed with, or respond respectfully to it, University officials sacrificed Ms. DeJong's civil rights to appease the art therapy mob," the lawsuit reads. 

"And 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."

DeJong seeks "compensatory, nominal, punitive damages and attorney fees and costs compensation."

The three students who requested no-contact orders are identified in the lawsuit by abbreviated pseudonyms of "Student A.S.," "Student T.P.," and "Student S.W."

DeJong is described in the suit as a devout Christian whose faith "motivates her to love God above anyone else, love her neighbor as herself, and tell others about the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

In November 2021, the court filing says DeJong reportedly posted a meme to her social media account that read: "Don't be deceived" by "[n]ew age practices" and referenced New and Old Testament scriptures from the Bible. 

After the post, DeJong received a private message from Student S.W., who said: "Don't you think it's not okay to say a person's belief system is wrong?" 

In a private message sent to S.W., DeJong responded by claiming the remark was a "good question." 

"In a relativist society, that can be viewed that way. But my personal held beliefs are grounded in objective truth by the gospel of Jesus Christ," wrote DeJong in her response to S.W. "My belief compels me to call out evil that holds people in spiritual bondage. You can totally disagree with me, and that is your right:) But it is out of love that I call this out."

A few months after the discussion, DeJong discovered that her statement about how her "personal held beliefs are grounded in objective truth by the gospel of Jesus Christ" was used in an art project of another student from the art therapy program. 

The project title was: "The Crushing Weight of Microaggressions."

The lawsuit further claims that although DeJong was reported for expressing her conservative Christian stances, other students were given the opportunity to openly express their beliefs, even supernatural ones.  

Student S.W., who identifies as a self-proclaimed witch, shared in class that "she wanted to learn how to cast spells."

And another student, who also identified as a self-proclaimed witch, brought Wicca materials to class. 

The complaint accuses multiple professors of devoting time in class to holding discussions with students about tarot cards, and some students used tarot cards in the class sessions. 

DeJong and Student S.W. reportedly sent messages to one another "between March 24 and 27, 2021, in which they expressed their respective viewpoints on several topics, including Second Amendment rights, gun laws, and 'privilege and power.'"

On another occasion, Student S.W. allegedly claimed that there was a text message from DeJong that was allegedly "perceived as threatening."

The message from DeJong reads: "[Student S.W.], I see where there are different forms of power, but I refuse to succumb to critical race theory. I think it is divisive and racist in its essence. So maybe I don't approach it your way, but I would be careful with your bold statements about me." 

The text is one of over 40 messages sent between DeJong and Student S.W.

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