Temple’s First Amendment Problems Are Nothing New–And One Student Is Still Paying the Price

By January 27, 2010

After reading about FIRE’s latest run-in with Temple University, Sergeant Christian DeJohn of Wyncote, Pennsylvaniaerstwhile student in Temple University’s Master of Arts in Military and American History program and member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard-could hardly hide his frustration. That’s because Christian is all too aware of Temple’s struggles with free speech on campus. In fact, Christian is still suffering as a result of the last time Temple tangled so seriously with the First Amendment, even though the court case that bears his last name is now cited across the country as a landmark victory for student free speech.

Torch readers will remember Christian for his bravery in standing up for both his speech rights and those of his fellow students by filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against Temple in 2006. Christian’s suit alleged that he had suffered retaliation from his professors for expressing his views in class and that Temple’s sexual harassment policy unconstitutionally restricted student speech. Christian’s constitutional challenge of Temple’s sexual harassment policy proved successful; in August 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found Temple’s policy to be unconstitutionally overbroad.

But despite the big win for the free speech rights of his fellow Temple students (as well as public university students in at least three states), Christian’s personal retaliation claims were dismissed. As I explained here on The Torch last March:

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….”

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 FIRE and the many students, faculty, and alumni concerned about speech on campus celebrated the Third Circuit’s decision in DeJohn v. Temple University, Christian DeJohn himself was cast into a maddening academic limbo. Because he took a public stand on behalf of the right to speak freely on a public university campus, Christian soon found his progress towards his master’s degree stopped dead in its tracks. Despite the fact that Christian had completed all 26 credits necessary for his degree while maintaining a 3.2 GPA, the new professor assigned to review the draft of Christian’s thesis refused to do so. Indeed, that Christian would be unable to secure an honest review of the work he’d done on his thesis from any member of Temple’s History Department quickly became apparent.

With his thesis stymied, in March 2009 Christian asked Temple Provost Lisa Staiano-Coico to review his situation and provide him a clear path to obtaining his degree. Five months later, Richard Englert, Dean of the Graduate School, finally responded with this note, denying Christian’s request to either (a) have his thesis draft reviewed or (b) be allowed to take a comprehensive exam in lieu of a thesis. Dean Englert informed Christian that his draft thesis didn’t meet Temple’s requirements for a degree, apparently precluding any chance of review and revision, and that because “the department’s curriculum has changed substantially since [Christian's] initial admission to the program,” a comprehensive examination wouldn’t be “workable.” Englert did, however, end his letter to Christian with an unsubtle hint that he’d be better off abandoning hope of ever getting his MA from Temple, writing: “Sometimes, students who have accumulated credits at one institution find that they are able to transfer these credits to a program at another institution.”

Christian is certainly assessing his options for completing his master’s, but the fact is that he shouldn’t have to leave Temple in order to do so. Temple’s treatment of Christian following its defeat in court has been embarrassingbelieve it or not, university counsel George Moore is actually on the record sneering that “[w]e don’t give degrees to people who sue.” That’s a ridiculous posture for a public university to assume following an order from a federal appellate court to start taking the First Amendment seriously, and serves as evidence of a lasting hostility to Christian simply for standing up for his rights.

Through it all, Christian has grown ever more frustrated by Temple’s hostile actions. In a letter to me this morning, he summarized his situation as follows:

Though I have completed all the required credits, registered and paid for “MA Thesis Guidance” from the Temple History Department for four semesters, and turned in the latest draft of my MA thesis in February 2006, Temple is refusing to even evaluate my work so I can complete my degree, and refusing to give me the standard comprehensive exam to graduate, because, they claim, they changed the curriculum after I completed all my requirements for the MA.

Christian also points out the cruel irony of his situation when juxtaposed against the ringing public affirmations of the value of academic freedom made by Temple President Ann Weaver Hart throughout her career. In her inaugural address as President of the University of New Hampshire in 2002, Hart stated:

To sustain an academic setting in which these initiatives can be successful, the University must be an open community free of prejudice. The fundamental principles of academic freedom, and the inquiry and scholarship they were meant to preserve, also protect people whose person and ideas differ substantially from either the mainstream or the fashionable.

Sounds like the kind of university president who would see the inherent problem in stonewalling a student who brought a successful lawsuit against the school’s unconstitutional speech code, right? Either this willingness to protect people whose ideas “differ substantially from either the mainstream or the fashionable” evaporated by the time she arrived at Temple, or Hart’s commitment to respecting uncommon views on campus isn’t worth much. Given the fact that she trumpets her interest in academic freedom on her university biography, and has stated in a 2006 interview that “it is very important that we remember that every human being has speech rights, free speech rights,” I’m guessing it’s the latter.

Wait, there’s more. Here’s Hart in 2007:

Temple is committed to academic freedom, and we assert that free inquiry and free expression are indispensable to the transmission of knowledge, the pursuit of truth, the development of students, and the general well-being of society.

Meanwhile, as Hart proclaims the value of free speech, Hart’s Dean of the Graduate School tells Christian, in so many words, to take a hike.

So, as the latest free speech controversy hits Temple, it’s important to bear in mind that one student is still paying for the university’s First Amendment problemsliterally. Christian’s still making student loan payments for the coursework he completed towards a degree that Temple seems determined to withhold from him. And for what other reason, save the fact that he had the courage to stand up for himself and his fellow students?

Schools: Temple University Cases: Temple University: Unconstitutional Security Fee for Geert Wilders Presentation Temple University: Speech Code Litigation