Porter v. Board of Trustees of North Carolina State University
Stephen Porter, a professor at North Carolina State University since 2011, has in recent years criticized NCSU’s administration. In retaliation for that speech, Porter’s department chair unilaterally removed him from his program area of study and assigned him an additional fifth course to teach. Those actions have inhibited Porter’s ability to do his job, as he can no longer attend program area events or participate in meaningful evaluations of his own Ph.D advisees. In September 2021, Porter sued the NCSU Board of Trustees and other officials for violating his First Amendment rights by retaliating against him because of his speech. However, in June 2022, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina dismissed Porter's First Amendment retaliation claim, ruling that because NCSU did not fire, demote, or take compensation or advancement opportunities away from Porter, he could not sue.
On September 6, 2022, FIRE filed an amicus brief supporting Porter’s appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. In the brief, FIRE argues that the district court’s ruling runs contrary to First Amendment precedent, which does not limit the definition of retaliation to these enumerated acts. Rather, First Amendment retaliation claims like Porter’s turn on an “ordinary firmness” standard, which protects individuals from any state action that would chill an ordinary person from exercising their free speech rights. As FIRE explains in its brief, this fact-intensive question is more appropriate for a jury to decide, and certainly should not result in dismissal before giving the professor an opportunity to fully develop the facts through discovery.
FIRE’s decades of experience demonstrate that, despite universities’ obligation to foster robust debate on campus, administrators use all kinds of tools to silence dissenting professors. As FIRE’s brief argues, professors must have a remedy against administrators who deliberately make life miserable for them simply because they express a viewpoint the college doesn’t like.