A lawsuit filed by a former graduate student has Temple in the midst of a legal battle over students’ First Amendment rights.
On April 10, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Temple appealed a March 2007 ruling that the university’s old sexual harassment policy was too broad and unconstitutional. Temple amended the old policy, which the District Court permanently enjoined.
Sgt. Christian DeJohn, 38, a Pennsylvania National Guard combat veteran and former Temple graduate student, filed suit against Temple in 2006, challenging the constitutionality of the university’s then-standing sexual harassment policy.
If Temple loses the appeal, it will be prevented from reverting back to its old policy, said David Hacker, an Alliance Defense Fund attorney who is representing DeJohn.
“There’s no objectivity to [the old policy],” Hacker said. “Temple did the right thing by changing [it], but the only reason they changed it was because of Mr. DeJohn’s lawsuit.”
Hacker said it could take three to six months for the court to make a decision.
University counsel George Moore said the old sexual harassment policy, which was developed through a university-wide committee including faculty, administrators and student consultations, contained language similar to the Equal Opportunity Act.
“The District Court found that Temple’s policy was overly broad based on a Third Circuit decision involving a civility code in primary education out of the State College School District,” Moore said. “Temple’s sexual harassment [code], which is not a civility code [or a speech code], is a code addressing illegal sexual harassing conduct.”
Moore said the outcome of the case is difficult to predict.
“One [option] is to seek reconsideration by the Third Circuit. Although, if the Third Circuit believes that the case was decided with regards to State College School District, the Third Circuit might feel bound to follow that,” he said.
“If the decision comes out based on that prior case, they don’t have any choice,” Moore said. “It might be a waste of time to ask them to reconsider. In that case, either side that is unhappy … can seek certiorari from the [U.S.] Supreme Court, [but] the Supreme Court only takes a small percentage of cases that way.”
In the same suit, DeJohn accused Temple of retaliation, which prevented him from graduating, and specifically sued the university itself, former President David Adamany, former history department chair Dr. Richard Immerman and history professor Dr. Gregory Urwin.
Moore said the court properly dismissed DeJohn’s claims of retaliation, as he did not meet university standards.
“With respect to his claim about the university sexual harassment policies, his claims really had nothing to do with the sexual harassment policy as it existed at the time,” Moore said. “It was not even a pertinent part of his claims of retaliation.”
DeJohn said his problems with Temple began when he took a leave of absence from working toward his military history degree to serve in Bosnia after the Spring 2002 semester.
When he returned back to the United States in March 2003, he learned that he was expelled from the university for failing to properly document his leave.
“This was my ‘welcome home’ from Temple,” DeJohn said. “‘Welcome home, you’re kicked out.’”
DeJohn was readmitted into the university and completed his class requirements. He began to research and write his graduate thesis, the last step in obtaining his degree.
“Because of Sept. 11, my whole life was disrupted,” DeJohn said. “I just wanted to finish my degree.”
When the primary reader of his thesis, history professor Dr. Jay Lockenour, was ready to sign off on it, DeJohn had one more hurdle to overcome – a secondary reader, Urwin, also had to approve it.
“DeJohn could have easily executed the revisions I recommended for his flawed [Master of Arts] thesis in two weeks and walked away from Temple with his degree years ago,” Urwin wrote in an e-mail, adding that he is currently helping four service members obtain degrees.
“One of the wildest charges DeJohn has circulated since the trial is that I have had him blackballed by various potential employers. How in the world would I know where he was applying for work?”
DeJohn said that though Urwin did not approve his thesis, Lockenour advised him to register to graduate in May 2005 anyway.
Although he never graduated, he said Temple reported to his student loan companies that he obtained a diploma, causing his loans to default, damaging his credit.
“As a veteran, I feel really strongly about civil rights, freedom of speech and First Amendment rights,” DeJohn said. “I think I have a responsibility to defend them. I like the irony here. I come home to Philadelphia, the cradle of democracy, and Temple is denying me my civil rights.”
“Before the disagreements, I had no problems as a student,” DeJohn said. “My cumulative GPA was a 3.2 or 3.3 in graduate school.”
DeJohn said he believes that his issues with the history department stemmed from his objections to receiving anti-war e-mails for weekly Dissent in America teach-ins sponsored by the department while he served overseas.
He said he is not sure what he could win in the case. He said one possibility is declaratory damages, in which Temple would be required to acknowledge that it violated the law.
“If we prevail on the First Amendment [issue], the usual award is $1. It’s a totally symbolic award,” he said.
He said he is ready to take the case as far as needed to ensure First Amendment rights for Temple students.
“If someone is hit by lightning once, it may be an accident,” he said. “If they’re hit seven times, something’s going on. I really have faith that this story will get out and that justice will be done – on the big picture level and my own personal individual level.”
Morgan A. Zalot can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.