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Sergeant Christian DeJohn and the Cost of Standing Up for Free Speech

Since filing our amicus brief, we must now await the Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in DeJohn v. Temple. While our brief focused primarily on the facial unconstitutionality of Temple’s former speech code and the danger of blurring the line between the rights enjoyed by high school students and those enjoyed by college students, it’s important to remember that the DeJohn in DeJohn v. Temple is a real person: Sergeant Christian DeJohn of Wyncote, Pennsylvania, a Temple masters’ student and member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, proud to have served overseas in Bosnia-Herzegovina (where he suffered disabling hearing loss), Egypt, and Korea.

After last week’s press release, Christian wrote FIRE, thanking us for supporting his claim—and more importantly, illustrating the terrible impact unconstitutional speech codes can have on the academic career and personal reputation of a student whose views are not shared by the majority. Expressing his frustrations about his treatment by both Temple and local Philadelphia media, Christian writes:

I appreciate that you and FIRE see the irony and hypocrisy of a decorated, disabled veteran who defended Bosnians’ individual rights overseas...seeing his most basic individual rights trampled on at Philly, “the cradle of democracy,” no less.

I’m in total academic and professional limbo right now—Temple is refusing to evaluate my MA thesis, thus delaying my graduation, and Temple profs, as they admitted under oath, are actually contacting potential employers to blackball me and sabotage my job search, over this. So, your support is a godsend.

Defendant Immerman (Temple History Professor) has expressed in writing his hope that I “self destruct” for expressing concerns about academic freedom at Temple. Defendent Urwin (also a Temple History professor) has admitted under oath that Temple officials, including he, have contacted potential employers to blackball me over this.

You can also read his response to my First Amendment concerns—calling veterans “mentally imbalanced” because we are “trained to kill,” quite an unusual attitude for a professor of military history.

Both professors have referred to me in the press as a “failed” student, “marginal learner,” etc., though I have completed all 26 credits towards a Masters’ Degree in History, and have a 3.2 GPA at Temple. The Philly media has repeated the slander, but never asked to see my transcripts (let alone interview me).

[T]he Philly media’s treatment of this over the past two years has been an unrelieved nightmare. They either ignore it entirely, or repeat Temple’s slander verbatim without even contacting me. There have been Philadelphia Inquirer articles printed where they quote 3-4 Temple officials attacking me personally, but the Inquirer writer never speaks to me. The Inquirer has stooped so low as to refer to me as a failing student and a marginal learner in headlines, when I have a 3.2 GPA at Temple!

My story has never even remotely been told in Philly, so I truly appreciate your support. I’m hoping that if I risk all to protect OTHER people’s First Amendment rights, maybe I can get a fair shake in the courts, including the court of public opinion. I know you see the horrible irony of that, a veteran who has risked his life for foreigners overseas being denied basic First Amendment rights, and personally attacked by a Philly media that doesn’t even bother to speak to me, yet repeats Temple officials below-the-belt attacks on me.

But thanks to your continued support, and that of ADF and the other organizations, I’m hopeful that in the process of fighting for other student’s fundamental First Amendment rights, I might get a fair shake myself. All the more so because I’m a soldier and veteran, which makes me very aware of Constitutional rights and freedoms.

While taking a stand for free speech is vital for the health of our democracy, doing so often entails untold costs, as Christian’s story demonstrates all too clearly. That’s why it’s crucial to remember that when courts consider the constitutionality of speech codes on campus, every discussion of principle and precedent has a tremendous impact on the daily lives of real students.

As David French, Senior Legal Counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund and former President of FIRE, reminded us in an April post on the case at Phi Beta Cons: “[E]very Temple student enjoys greater free speech rights as a result of Christian DeJohn’s stand. And for that, we owe him our thanks.”

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