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‘For Want of A Degree’: Free speech ‘victor’ denied master’s degree he earned. Can your college or university help?
Almost a decade later, it might still be the cruelest free speech victory FIRE has ever helped win.
Since former U.S. Army Sergeant Christian DeJohn’s ordeal standing up for free speech at Temple University first began in the early 2000s — and nine years after the precedent-setting federal court decision in DeJohn v. Temple University declared him the prevailing party in his First Amendment lawsuit against the university — the disabled combat veteran is still burdened by the weight of a profound, unresolved loss: the master’s degree he rightfully earned, but never got.
“Temple won’t grant my degree, they won’t review my thesis, they won’t give me an exam to earn my degree,” DeJohn tells FIRE. “It’s total academic limbo. Every avenue has been blocked off.”
And that’s despite DeJohn having done everything right: He fulfilled all of the coursework for the university’s Master of Arts in Military and American History program with a 3.2 GPA and at the cost of some $50,000 in student loans. He was approved for graduation by the school’s registrar (“My name even appears in one of the graduation programs,” DeJohn said). And he has made numerous attempts to get Temple to simply read his long-completed thesis. Yet, the university continues to deny him. No one in the school’s history department will review it.
Temple also won’t let him take the exam that could substitute for a thesis defense.
“A lot of people don’t realize you can get a master’s degree by getting your thesis approved or by taking a comprehensive exam,” DeJohn told FIRE. “So I contacted Temple in 2009 and requested to take a comprehensive exam in American History.”
The school refused the request, citing changes to its curriculum.
“So apparently,” DeJohn quips, “the Japanese won WWII?”
But he instantly regrets using sarcasm. He says he knows it makes him sound bitter.
He hates sounding bitter.
Years of being the unwilling protagonist in Temple’s story may have worn on DeJohn, but they will not define him. Now a military historian, he is moving forward with optimism — and writing a new chapter of his own. Fifteen of them, to be exact.
His forthcoming book, “For Want of A Gun: The Sherman Tank Scandal of WWII,” coming out on May 28, finally gives readers the chance to see his master’s thesis, the untold story of a WWII cover-up controversy, expanded into more than 500 pages and bolstered by years of additional research.
‘I really wanted to do my duty.’
Christian DeJohn joined the Army after 9/11.
“I had relatives in every branch of the military in WWII. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. I just had these wonderful role models that were drafted or volunteered, and served,” DeJohn said. “I felt so blessed and honored and lucky to follow in their footsteps in a very small way. I really wanted to do my duty.”
He also wanted his master’s degree.
In 2002, he enrolled in Temple’s Military and American History graduate program. After completing his first semester, the Army called him up to active duty in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he served as a gunner on an M1 Abrams tank. His service in Bosnia would leave him with permanently disabling hearing loss and chronic knee problems.
An ocean away, an unexpected but equally enduring threat to DeJohn’s future was beginning to taking shape — via email.
“While I was serving in Bosnia and getting hostile fire pay, Temple University was sending me invitations to these flag-burnings and anti-war protests and anti-military protests,” DeJohn remembers.
“I wrote back something like ‘I have so much respect for your right to protest me. Good men and women over here are actually risking their lives to defend your First Amendment rights, but please don’t invite me to a flag-burning while I’m serving in a combat zone.’”
“That was how a lot of it started.”
And when he returned to his graduate program more than seven months later, DeJohn wasn’t shy about debating unpopular viewpoints in his classes. Especially when he started receiving pushback for doing so.
“I think I was really affected serving in Bosnia and seeing these insane violations of free speech and civil rights,” he said. “We were doing peacekeeping and keeping the three warring sides apart. There were horrendous war crimes and atrocities in Bosnia. There were concentration camps. There was horrible systematic rape and torture. Genocide. Ethnic cleansing.
“It just made an impression on me that it was because no one wanted to speak up. It really reminded me of Nazi Germany where no one was willing to speak out and call out the injustice. Bosnia was like that. No one wanted to be the one to stand up and say ‘This is wrong,’ and be the one to oppose it.”
So back at Temple, DeJohn was not about to be silent when it came to discussing his strongly held political beliefs — and standing up for his right to do so.
No remedy for every injustice
In one of our last updates on the case in 2009, we described the series of events that compelled DeJohn to file his federal lawsuit against Temple in 2006. The suit challenged one of Temple’s speech codes on First Amendment grounds. It also included several retaliation claims — and rightfully so:
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.
DeJohn’s complaint described, in particular, the unusual behavior of professor Gregory Urwin, who, after DeJohn began speaking out in class, began treating DeJohn differently. Urwin assigned additional coursework other professors later said was unnecessary, retracted his promise to be DeJohn’s thesis advisor and, after DeJohn’s tank-scandal thesis was OK’d by another professor, gave the paper a second read and denied approval.
Urwin called DeJohn a “gnat,” wondered aloud if he had “Alzheimer’s disease,” and called his thesis “agonizing.” He also made eyebrow-raising notations in the margins of the thesis, raising questions about Urwin’s ability to be impartial toward DeJohn:
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.”
In early 2005, DeJohn sought final approval of his thesis while also having been recalled to active duty. He was only later made aware that it was Urwin’s comments causing the approval delay. That delay, meanwhile, caused DeJohn to default on his student loans. The history department ultimately asked DeJohn to rewrite his thesis in its entirety. After he exhausted all administrative options to have his thesis granted an impartial review, the university still refused.
With all indications pointing to the fact that DeJohn had been discriminated against for voicing unpopular viewpoints, he took Temple to court in 2006.
In addition to the retaliation claims, DeJohn challenged portions of the school’s code of conduct prohibiting, among other things, speech causing others “emotional harm.” He argued that such speech codes discouraged students like him from expressing dissenting views on campus. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed, ruling in 2008 that Temple’s policy was unconstitutionally overbroad.
But despite DeJohn’s resounding legal victory on First Amendment grounds, sometimes the law fails to provide a remedy for every injustice.
We described the frustrating outcome back in 2009:
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.
And with it, DeJohn has had to dismiss his dream of ever getting his degree from Temple.
After DeJohn went on to win his speech code claims, university counsel George Moore told Temple’s student newspaper, “We don’t give degrees to people who sue.”
This many years later, the university has kept its word.
‘For Want of A Gun’
DeJohn’s new book, adapted from his master’s thesis, contains the never-before-told story of the Sherman tank coverup of WWII. It details how the U.S. government and the Army colluded to hide the weaknesses of their go-to tank.
“President Roosevelt was promising people, ‘We have the best tanks in the world,’” DeJohn said.
But that was far from true, and the conspiracy cost the lives of tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers.
The story is one DeJohn said he got interested in during his stint in Bosnia.
“I was a tank gunner. Sometimes you’re in the tank for eight hours straight and you talk about almost anything. Soldiers would hear that I was working on a master’s degree and they would always ask me about the Sherman tank. ‘Why was this tank so bad?’ ‘Why was the German tank so much better?’” DeJohn said. “So I really got interested in that question. I was always drawn to the idea of an untold story, a controversy that has really never been explored in full.”
Over a decade since he reviewed the subject in his master’s thesis, the new book has benefitted from years of additional research and what DeJohn describes as “incredible support from the Army,” which allowed him special access to its private collection of 400 “world-class, very rare tanks” at Fort Benning in Georgia.
And that title? It was inspired by the 1300s-era English poem, “For Want of a Nail,” about how seemingly small actions can have catastrophic, unforeseen consequences:
For Want of a Nail
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
“It’s meant to be very ironic because the gun on the Sherman tanks was really weak. The Americans would shoot at the German tanks and the bullets would just bounce off. We actually won the war with a really crappy tank. But unfortunately, 60,000 men were killed.” DeJohn said. “I kept running across quotes from WWII soldiers that said, ‘This would be a really great tank if it had a better gun.’ ‘We need a better gun.’ ‘The gun is the problem.’”
‘For Want of A Degree’
“For Want of a Nail” has been repeatedly recast over the centuries, as a caution or advisory to various audiences.
Benjamin Franklin, for example, added the opening line “A little neglect may breed mischief,” and used it in an edition of his popular 1700s proverb book, “Poor Richard’s Almanack.” Lawyers and judges have used and adapted the proverb to illustrate the concept of legal or proximate causation — that which sets a chain of events in motion, leading to a justiciable harm. At FIRE, we’ve seen the concept play out again and again, too, finding that even the smallest infringements on free expression, left unchallenged, may have far-reaching and long-lasting implications for students’ ability to express themselves on campus.
The derailment of DeJohn’s quest for his master’s degree for speaking his mind may be an extreme example, but miniature versions of his story play out on campuses across the country every day.
“If you ask me, ‘Christian, why should people care about this case?’ It’s even more relevant than ever,” he said. “People are reading headlines with campus speakers being physically intimidated and attacked because they dare to present opposing views. This issue is even more relevant today than when we won the case.”
So what do we lose for want of colleges that respect free expression? For want of universities that don’t tolerate speech codes or retaliation against students who express unpopular opinions? What are the catastrophic, unforeseen consequences for the rest of us in allowing these injustices — of any magnitude — to stand?
In that respect, DeJohn’s story might be equal parts tragedy and instruction manual. And if that’s the case, is there more we can learn, or do, before we officially close the book?
FIRE thinks there is.
Any college or university could step up and create an answer to the problem the courts — and DeJohn’s own best efforts — have been powerless to solve: Just one school could agree to read his thesis and grant his degree.
Would it take a bit of administrative negotiation? Certainly.
Would it involve some extra effort on the part of a faculty body somewhere? Sure.
Would it be the undisputed right thing to do for a man who has sacrificed as much for liberty in the classroom and in the courtroom as he has on the battlefield? Absolutely.
“They could just say ‘We’ll take your 26 credits,’” DeJohn said. “That’s like the light at the end of the tunnel.”
After all these years, Christian DeJohn can still hope.
He knows it’s a longshot.
He also knows it’s his last chance.
If a department at your college or university would be interested in reading Christian DeJohn’s thesis and transcript and granting the degree he earned, we’d love to hear from you.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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