As Lawsuit Comes to Close, Sgt. Christian DeJohn is Left Stranded

By March 12, 2009

This morning, in a federal courtroom a few blocks from FIRE’s Philadelphia headquarters, the landmark case of DeJohn v. Temple University neared its long-awaited completion.

This may come as a surprise to Torch readers, who understandably might have assumed that DeJohn had been decisively concluded back in August of 2008, when the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued a precedential ruling declaring Temple University’s former sexual harassment policy to be unconstitutional. But unfinished business remained: namely, determining the precise amount of attorney’s fees Temple must now pay, with taxpayer money, to student Christian DeJohn’s lawyers. Being on the losing side in this litigation, Temple must pony up, and today’s hearing seeks to set the rate at which DeJohn’s lawyers will be compensated. For comparison, note that Georgia Tech was ordered to pay over $200,000 for violating its students’ freedom of religion.

Thus, shortly after today DeJohn will have likely reached its legal conclusion. But the case’s namesakeSergeant Christian DeJohn of Wyncote, Pennsylvania, a student in Temple University’s Master of Arts in Military and American History program and a member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guardwill still be suffering.

That’s because Christian’s bravery in standing up for his First Amendment rights has exacted a clear toll from him, both personally and professionally. As a direct result of his stand against Temple’s unconstitutional speech code, Christian is currently stranded in academic limbo. Despite having completed all necessary coursework towards obtaining his master’s degreethe full 26 credits, with a 3.2 GPA to bootChristian’s progress towards receiving his degree screeched to a halt shortly after he filed his lawsuit against Temple. Since filing it, Christian can’t get an honest review of his completed thesis from anyone in Temple’s History Department, leaving him high and dry.

We’ve covered the exceedingly unprofessional treatment Christian received from his professors in this space before, but a quick review is in order to understand exactly how Christian got stuck in this situation.

After serving overseas in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he suffered disabling hearing loss, Christian returned to his studies at Temple in 2003. At this point, Christian’s professors were aware of his conservative political views, for Christian had asked not to receive the anti-war e-mails being sent around the History Department while he was serving his country abroad. Upon his return, Christian engaged in spirited political debate with his professor in his Comparative History of Modern War class. This kind of intellectual exchange is precisely what colleges are for, but Christian was quickly marked by his professors for his political views.

Soon enough, Christian suffered what seemed like obvious retaliation for daring to voice his feelings on controversial topics in class. Specifically, his master’s thesis was trashed by the professor assigned to review it. Although FIRE, like the courts, does not typically weigh in on grade disputes, given the highly specialized expertise required to properly adjudicate the merits of competing grade claims, it is difficult not to see the incredibly unprofessional and nasty comments prompted by Christian’s thesis as anything other than evidence of personal animus. Read Christian’s complaint and judge for yourself:

[Professor Urwin] commented that the thesis was "agonizing" and that DeJohn must suffer from "Alzheimer’s disease." Urwin also wrote notes in the margins of DeJohn’s thesis. He wrote that DeJohn sounds like a "crackpot," that his arguments are "absurd," that the thesis read like "a comic book for 5-year olds," that it was "amateurish," that it was "exaggerated melodrama," "juvenile melodrama," and "juvenile rhetoric," "monotonous agony," "juvenile argumentation," a "hissy fit in print."

Professor Urwin further called Christian a "gnat," and his professors are on record as saying at the time that they hoped he would "self-destruct." Again, it’s difficult to see how mean-spirited comments like that could be considered as constructive criticism, academically speaking. At any rate, Christian filed his complaint, which included both a retaliation charge, based on evidence like that excerpted above, and a First Amendment challenge to Temple’s sexual harassment policy.

As Christian’s case proceeded, the district court ended up dismissing Christian’s retaliation claims. Despite the fact that the presiding judge indicated orally that it certainly seemed as though the judgment of Christian’s paper was politically motivated, and a court order notes that "[i]t is indisputable that, between November, 2001 and August, 2003, something happened that significantly altered Prof. Gregory Urwin’s appraisal of Christian DeJohn," the lower court eventually found that the law on retaliation in this circumstance was not clearly established enough to pierce the professor’s qualified immunity defense. As such, the retaliation claims were dismissed.

So while the speech code challenge proceeded to the Third Circuit, resulting in the landmark decision that now bears his name, Christian’s academic progress has consequently been completely stonewalled. At present, Christian probably cannot secure an honest review of his thesis from any faculty member in Temple’s History Department. After he submitted a revised thesis to a new professor in the department put in charge of reviewing the thesis, the professor refused to review it.

This is appalling, but because of his willingness to take a public stand to defend the right to speak one’s mind at a public university, Christian now finds himself essentially unable to complete his degree.

Needless to say, Christian is frustratedand justifiably so. He wrote me yesterday, on the eve of today’s hearing about attorney’s fees:

Nutty situation, huh? The "losing" attorney, Joe Tucker (who is on retainer with Temple at taxpayer expense and gets paid either way) may get who knows, $300,000 for all his work on this, while the prevailing party that took a stand for academic freedom is left with…

– no prospect of an MA degree (at least at Temple),

– $50,000 in student loans,

– personal credit destroyed by Temple through a "computer error,"

– character assassination by Temple in the media,

– a mere $1 "symbolic victory,"

– and, six years into the case, zero accountability or resolution from Temple’s President Ann Weaver Hart (who has been ducking me and the media from the start) and her employees who created the mess.

And the kicker? This persecution of a student and veteran with the audacity to actually exercise his First Amendment rights is being funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s taxpayers, who are unknowingly footing the bill, since all this is occurring at a state-funded school.

Of course I’m not the most neutral observer in all this, but consider how this would influence students considering taking a stand in the future – as things are right now, if this is what happens to the "winner" when a student speaks up for free speech, after hearing of our outcome, what young college students would be willing to fight, ya know ? That’s why I’m fighting on for accountability from FIRE’s old friend President Hart, et al

Hard to blame Christian for being at his wits’ end.

(Incidentally, Christian calls Temple President Ann Weaver Hart "FIRE’s old friend" because, in an ironic twist, Hart was President of the University of New Hampshire at the time of FIRE’s infamous "Freshman Fifteen" case. That’s the one in which student Tim Garneau was kicked out of student housingand was stuck living in his car while the case was resolvedafter he posted fliers that joked freshman women could lose the "Freshman Fifteen" by walking up the dormitory stairs instead of taking the elevator.)

The bottom line is that Christian should have had his degree years ago and should have been given a chance to resume normal academic progress. Were it not for speaking his mind, Christian could have sailed through like any other student. Maybe he could have even obtained a doctorate by now! Instead, Christian went to court to defend not only his own right to free speech, but also the rights of his fellow Temple students. Indeed, because of the precedential ruling handed down in his case by the Third Circuit, Christian’s personal bravery means that students at every public institution in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware are that much freer to engage in protected speech on campus without fear of punishment via unconstitutional speech codes.

But no good deed goes unpunished, they say, and Christian’s shameful treatment at the hands of Temple University confirms this bitter maxim.

However, FIRE supporters can still make a difference for Christian, just as Christian has done for his fellow students. As Christian’s legal case comes to a close, I ask that Torch readers who would like to see Temple do right by Christian take the time to write President Hart a brief note, politely asking that Temple’s History Department grant Christian DeJohn’s thesis a review by an objective, third-party panel. Giving Christian’s thesis a fair hearing would be the honorable thing for Temple to do.

Schools: Temple University Cases: Temple University: Speech Code Litigation