DeJohn v. Temple: The Facts of the Case
August 5, 2008
by Adam Kissel
The precedential decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in the case of DeJohn v. Temple focuses mainly on the unconstitutionality of Temple's abandoned speech code—which had been disguised, as so many schools are doing nowadays, as part of its sexual harassment policy.
The case probably would not even have been filed if Temple had not treated DeJohn so badly in the first place. Following DeJohn's complaint, here's what happened:
Christian DeJohn, a student in Temple University's Master of Arts in Military and American History program, was also a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard. DeJohn was deployed to Bosnia. While deployed, he received a number of anti-war e-mails from a history professor at Temple:
the e-mails were full of anti-war messages, information about campus "sit-ins," and demonstrations around campus protesting the Iraq war.
DeJohn expressed his displeasure with the e-mails, and Department of History e-mails then stopped coming. When it was time for him to return to school, he found that he had been dismissed from the university. As DeJohn tells it, Temple "failed to grant DeJohn military leave guaranteed by federal and state law" and "dismissed him from school (later claiming his dismissal was a ‘computer error')." This so-called error was corrected, and DeJohn returned to class in 2003.
DeJohn then took a course named Comparative History of Modern War during which the professor
consistently engaged in diatribes against the United States military in Iraq and the alleged failures of President Bush. As a veteran, DeJohn politely disagreed with many of [Professor Gregory] Urwin's characterizations. DeJohn's disagreements were in no way disruptive to the classroom environment.
That could have been the end of it—just some serious intellectual exchange over contentious political issues. But in retaliation for DeJohn's non-disruptive responses to the anti-war messages of his professors, he alleged, Temple then
refused to advise him during his thesis completion, personally and professionally denigrated him when evaluating his thesis, rejected his thesis without legitimate academic grounds, delayed his graduation three times,
and more. For instance, although DeJohn had been given permission to complete an accredited course elsewhere and have it transferred, Urwin declared that the course was inadequate and required him to read an additional five or six books on the subject (the Vietnam War) and write papers on them. Urwin, who was the appropriate one to advise DeJohn's master's thesis, soon declared (according to the complaint) "that he could no longer advise DeJohn on his thesis because he was too busy." After DeJohn submitted his thesis, the professor
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,"
and more. DeJohn had apparently violated an unwritten rule about too many thesis advisors: if they don't like you or agree politically with your work, it's going to be harder to get them to stay on as your advisor and harder to have your work judged fairly. Because of the special relationship between advisor and student, a huge amount of discretion is afforded to the advisor, and unscrupulous advisors find it all too easy to abuse that discretion.
Judging the quality of academic work is often an extremely subjective enterprise, which is why courts would rather stay away from second-guessing university faculty. For this reason, not in a position to judge, I find it unsurprising that a court might dismiss charges against Temple that relate to Temple's treatment of DeJohn from an academic point of view. But this is no way means that Temple professors acted appropriately given the discretion with which they have been entrusted. Given the context of this case, I would think that Professor Urwin now might want to preserve his reputation and offer to have DeJohn's thesis reviewed by a more objective third-party panel.
As for Temple's unconstitutional speech code and the implications of the Third Circuit decision, see our upcoming blog series (all to be posted here) and earlier blog posts, and in particular see the amici brief filed by FIRE along with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Christian Legal Society, Collegefreedom.org, Feminists for Free Expression, the Individual Rights Foundation, Students for Academic Freedom, and the Student Press Law Center.
It is often intimidating to speak out against the views of one's professors. But in an environment where speech has been chilled by an unconstitutional speech code—the Third Circuit has essentially said that Temple cannot be trusted to respect freedom of speech, even now, hence the injunction—and where DeJohn has suffered such treatment by members of Temple's Department of History, I think every student at Temple University ought to be warned: Temple University is not a safe place for you to speak out.