We previously discussed concerns over free speech on the campus of the University of North Texas, including the canceling of an event on child gender transitioning. Students and faculty were not content to protest such events but acted to prevent others from hearing opposing views. Now, the university itself has lost a critical motion in a free speech case brought by Mathematics Professor Nathaniel Hiers after his contract was not renewed due to his criticism of the school’s microaggression policies. Judge Sean Jordan ruled that Professor Hiers may proceed to trial on his free speech claim.
Professor Hiers sued the Board of Regents of the University of North Texas after it told him that it did not renew his contract due to his criticism of the policy. Mathematics Department Chair Professor Ralf Schmidt expressly stated that “[m]y 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.”
That is a reference to a controversy when a copy of the school’s microaggression policy was called “garbage” on a blackboard in the graduate lounge. The court included the picture in its opinion:
When Schmidt sent around a demand for the person responsible to step forward, Hiers publicly accepted responsibility. He was later canned.
We have previously discussed microaggression policies and the concerns over free speech over their fluid definition and controversial examples. I have had debates over such policies and I am often struck by the difficulty of those on the other side to clearly define the scope of the term. That lack of clarity (and the subjectivity of some of the term) creates a chilling effect on free speech. Free speech demands bright lines to avoid self-censorship and coerced silence.
This policy contains many such examples including referring to America as a “melting pot” or saying “there is only one race, the human race.” It includes clear political speech like “calling affirmative action racist.” They are all microaggressions and could be used as the basis for university action or intervention.
Even without such intervention, however, students and faculty have every right to criticize such a policy or the listed examples of microaggression. Ironically, however, the list includes asking questions. For example, it is a microaggression to inquire (presumably after someone says that they were followed in a store): “Are you sure you were being followed in the store? I can’t believe it.”
Judge Jordan correctly ruled that Hiers was raising a core principle of free speech and could go to trial on these claims.
“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 university officials allegedly flouted that core principle of the First Amendment when they discontinued Hiers’s 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 University of North Texas and President Neal J. Smatresk are clearly unwilling to take a stand to protect dissenting views on campus. Lacking such courage, they may secretly want a court to force them to do the right thing to avoid being targeted or tagged as racist by the mob. It is hardly a proud moment for our profession, but these lawsuits are needed to impose costs on universities in refusing to protect the core free speech and academic freedom principles that are the foundation for higher education.
Here is the opinion: North Texas Lawsuit