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Fired for his views, UNT math professor brings free speech lawsuit

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In total defiance of the First Amendment, the University of North Texas has fired a math professor for criticizing the concept of microaggressions and for refusing to attend extra diversity training to correct his views, which the math department chair deemed “not compatible with the values of this department.”  

Now, professor Nathaniel Hiers is suing UNT for violating his free speech and due process rights. Hiers is represented by attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom.

The right to express one’s views, particularly in matters of politics, is at the absolute core of the First Amendment’s protection of the right to free speech. As the Supreme Court wrote in Texas v. Johnson (1989), the case in which it upheld flag burning as a protected form of protest: “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Yet that is exactly what UNT has done to Hiers. 

The trouble started in November 2019, when someone anonymously left a stack of flyers in the faculty lounge explaining the concept of microaggressions, which the flyers described as “verbal and nonverbal behaviors” that “communicate negative, hostile, and derogatory messages to people rooted in their marginalized group membership.” According to his complaint, Hiers believes that the concept of microaggressions “hurts diversity and tolerance” because it “teaches people to see the worst in other people, promotes a culture of victimhood, and suppresses alternative viewpoints instead of encouraging growth and dialogue.” Indeed, microaggression theory has been the subject of much public debate, including — as the complaint notes — in FIRE president Greg Lukianoff and NYU social psychologist Jon Haidt’s recent book, “The Coddling of the American Mind”. 

So in response to the flyers he disagreed with, Hiers wrote a note on the chalkboard in the faculty lounge that read “please don’t leave garbage lying around,” with an arrow pointing to the stack of flyers. 

According to Hiers’ complaint, professors regularly leave comments and jokes on the faculty lounge chalkboard, often anonymously. But this time, Ralf Schmidt, chair of the math department, sent an email to the entire department with a photo of the comment, stating “Would the person who did this please stop being a coward and see me in the chair’s office immediately. Thank you.” 

According to Hiers, when he went to meet with Schmidt on Nov. 26, Schmidt pressured him to apologize for the flyers and asked if he would like to attend additional diversity training (beyond UNT’s required diversity training, which Hiers was already scheduled to attend). Hiers declined to apologize or to attend additional training. 

On Dec. 2, Hiers was notified that UNT had terminated his employment. While this already would have been constitutionally suspect given the ongoing controversy over Hiers’ expression, Schmidt made crystal clear in an email that Hiers had, in fact, been fired for his views.

“My decision not to continue your employment in the spring semester was based on your actions in the grad lounge on 11/26, and your subsequent response,” Schmidt wrote. 

Schmidt also implied that if Hiers had agreed to apologize for his views and attend diversity training to reform them, things might have turned out differently.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Schmidt wrote, “and I’m all for forgiveness if actions are followed by honest regret. But you very much defended your actions, and stated clearly that you are not interested in any kind of diversity training.” So instead, Hiers was terminated because his actions were “not compatible with the values of this department.” 

Hiers’ complaint alleges not only First Amendment violations but also due process violations, because the decision to terminate him was made without offering him a hearing or any other meaningful opportunity to defend himself. 

This is an important case. If faculty are free to distribute literature promoting microaggression theory, but are not free to criticize it, then the university — through explicit viewpoint discrimination —  is imposing what the Supreme Court has called a “pall of orthodoxy” over the university, which is supposed to be the ultimate “marketplace of ideas.” 

FIRE will keep you updated on this case as it progresses.

Correction: An earlier version of this article included the incorrect date that Hiers was notified of his termination. This has been corrected to Dec. 2. FIRE regrets the error.

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