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University of North Texas at Denton

Court: Professor may proceed with lawsuit against university after being fired for ‘microaggressions’ joke

ADF attorneys represent Nathaniel Hiers in federal lawsuit against University of North Texas

Tuesday, Mar 15, 2022

SHERMAN, Texas – A federal district court said late Friday that a professor’s lawsuit against the University of North Texas may proceed after he was fired over a joke he wrote on a chalkboard in the teachers' lounge, denying in part the university’s motion to dismiss the case.

In the lawsuit, Hiers v. The Board of Regents of the University of North Texas System, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys represent Nathaniel Hiers, a math professor hired by the university in the fall of 2019. After discovering flyers in the mathematics department’s faculty lounge about “microaggressions,” Hiers jokingly wrote on the chalkboard, “Please don’t leave garbage lying around,” with an arrow pointing to the flyers. The following week, the head of the math department fired Hiers by cancelling his contract to teach in the spring, admitting that he fired Hiers because he criticized the flyers and didn’t express “honest regret” about his actions.

“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,” said ADF Legal Counsel Michael Ross. “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.”

“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,” the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Sherman Division, wrote in its ruling. “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.”

“Hiers’ speech reflected his protest of a topic (microaggressions) born from the present-day political correctness movement that has become an issue of contentious cultural debate,” the court’s opinion continued. “Hiers responded by criticizing the concept of microaggressions promoted by the flyer. That he did so by jokingly referring to the flyer as ‘garbage’ does not deprive his speech of the First Amendment’s protection.”

“Public universities can’t fire professors just because they don’t endorse every message someone communicates in the faculty lounge. By firing Dr. Hiers, the university sent an explicit message: ‘Agree with us or else,’” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “The person who left the flyers in the faculty lounge was able to express his or her views; Dr. Hiers should have had the same freedom. The university should start modeling, instead of opposing, that right for everyone.”

  • Pronunciation guide: Hiers (HI’-urs), Langhofer (LANG’-hoff-ur)

The ADF Center for Academic Freedom is dedicated to ensuring freedom of speech and association for students and faculty so that everyone can freely participate in the marketplace of ideas without fear of government censorship.

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