Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit was set to hear oral arguments in a long-running case involving Teresa Wagner, a candidate for legal writing instructor at the University of Iowa College of Law who alleges that she was denied the employment opportunity due to her political beliefs. In a case that we have written about several times, Wagner is before the Eighth Circuit seeking a new trial on her allegations that the law school’s decision not to hire her violated her First Amendment right to free speech as well as her Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law.
Wagner’s legal battle has been of interest to FIRE ever since she filed suit in federal court in 2009. Torch readers may recall that despite her seemingly impressive qualifications for the writing instructor position, she was passed over in favor of candidates with arguably inferior credentials. Her lawsuit alleges that her political beliefs and activism, namely her conservative views and pro-life advocacy, may have rubbed some of the faculty and administrators at the law school—including those making hiring decisions—the wrong way.
Of course, making hiring decisions based on a candidate’s political views at a public institution is a textbook form of viewpoint discrimination prohibited by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court made that clear in Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, 497 U.S. 62 (1990) (holding that promotion, transfer, recall, and hiring decisions involving low-level public employees may not be based on political party affiliation and support). Moreover, as The Wall Street Journal’s Peter Berkowitz argues:
Hiring decisions should be based on candidates’ merits, including their ability to vigorously present in the classroom and criticize conservative as well as progressive views. If the Eighth Circuit protects Teresa Wagner’s constitutional rights, the court will also bolster legal education in America by promoting its depoliticization.
Now, Wagner faces the latest step in her efforts to vindicate her constitutional rights. We’ll be following developments at the Eighth Circuit and will provide further updates on the Torch. In the meantime, for more about this case, please check out our earlier writings as well as the latest from The Wall Street Journal and from The Daily Iowan.
Image: Old Capitol at the University of Iowa – Flickr