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Court: Fired professor’s suit against University of North Texas will proceed, school officials likely violated First Amendment

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A former professor who was fired for making a joke about microaggressions received a partial victory after a court ruled that his case could proceed.


Quick Facts


The backstory is this: Hiers had entered the faculty lounge and found a stack of fliers about microaggressions. Included in the fliers were a list of statements that had been condemned and shouldn’t be used by professors, including, “America is a melting pot,” “I believe the most qualified person should get the job,” and “America is the land of opportunity.” These statements were deemed to be guilty of propagating the “myth of meritocracy” and promoting colorblindness.

Hiers wrote on the chalkboard, “Please don’t leave garbage lying around,” and drew an arrow pointing to the trashcan. He meant the comment as a joke fitting with the bantering tone of the faculty. Ralf Schmidt, chair of the mathematics department, called the act “cowardly” and stupid and asked Hiers to apologize. He also asked if Hiers would want to participate in extra diversity training. Hiers declined to apologize and declined the additional training as he was set to complete regular diversity training in a few days.

A few days later he was informed that he would no longer be allowed to teach in the upcoming semester. Schmidt sent a letter to Hiers informing him that he was let go for his message on the chalkboard and his response. He claimed that Hiers’ message could be viewed as “threatening” and silencing debate about microaggressions. He voiced displeasure at Hiers’ refusal to apologize and wrote, “In my opinion, your actions and response are not compatible with the values of this department.”

Hiers filed suit, claiming that the school violated his First Amendment rights, among other claims. Although the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Sherman Division, dismissed several of Hiers’ claims, it ruled that the suit may proceed. 

“Preserving the ‘freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think’ is both an inherent good, and an abiding goal of our democracy,” Judge Sean Jordan wrote. “The university officials allegedly flouted that core principle of the First Amendment when they discontinued Hiers’ employment because of his speech. Accepting the allegations as true, the Court concludes that Hiers plausibly alleged that the university officials violated his right to freedom of speech.”

The court also was not swayed by the school’s argument that it did not compel speech writing, “To the contrary, precedent establishes that the government violates the First Amendment when it tries to compel public employees to affirm beliefs with which they disagree. Period.”

And Jordan also refused to grant Schmidt and other university officials qualified immunity, which means that if Hiers prevails, individuals—and not just the university—could be held personally liable for violating Hiers constitutional rights.

ADF Legal Counsel Michael Ross said, “The freedom to express one’s viewpoint is a bedrock principle we hold dear in America. As a result, the First Amendment doesn’t allow the government to punish people because it disagrees with their opinions.” He added, “We’re pleased the court recognized Dr. Hiers’ freedom of speech and that he has the right to hold the university accountable for its discrimination. This sends a strong statement not only to the University of North Texas, but to public colleges across the country: The right to free speech is for everyone—not just those in power.”

If the allegations are true, then Professor Hiers was fired for simply disagreeing with Schmidt on the imperative of microaggressions. Microaggressions are a fabrication invented to make professors and students constantly look for the bad in others, to shield students from the diverse marketplace of ideas, and to divide them while pushing a Marxist agenda. What’s more, a university’s insistence that grown adults in the form of college students have to be somehow protected from words and ideas is not only destroying the university’s mission to impart knowledge and critical thinking skills, but it is also hurting students’ ability to cope with and tolerate diversity of thought and the reality that life will not always be safe and on their terms.

The issue here, however, is Hiers’ constitutional right right to express himself, jokingly or otherwise. Sarcasm written on a blackboard is not threatening, it’s not violence, and it is not silencing dissent. In actuality, the university’s response was threatening (to accuse someone of being a “coward” is typically viewed as fighting words) and firing someone because they won’t apologize for innocuous speech on behalf of fantasy victims is the very definition of silencing dissent.

Unfortunately Hiers is not alone. Too many professors have been punished and run off campus for both professional and personal speech. By firing and suspending professors for having the “wrong” opinion about cultural or political issues, universities are causing those same professors to self-censor their ideas, their arguments, their creativity, and their ability to challenge students to think through complex problems and understand complex issues.

Professors and their constitutional right to speak, think, believe, opine, joke, fail, and even offend others’ sensibilities must be protected by the courts — since clearly their own universities will not. Otherwise, professors will become nothing more than well-compensated but nervous ideological promoters and their students witless automatons.