SHERMAN, Texas – Attorneys with the Arizona-based organization, Alliance Defending Freedom, filed suit in federal court last week on behalf of a University of North Texas professor, Dr. Nathaniel Hiers, who was fired for criticizing flyers about “microaggressions” that someone left anonymously in the mathematics department’s faculty lounge.
According to the Alliance Defending Freedom lawsuit, Ralf Schmidt, head of the mathematics department, told Hiers he fired him because he criticized the “microaggressions” fliers and didn’t express “honest regret” about his actions. Other university officials approved of Schmidt’s retaliation.
“The right to free speech is for everyone—not just those in power. Tolerance is a two-way street,” said ADF Legal Counsel Michael Ross in a press release. “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.’”
Thomas Brandon, Jr. is serving as local counsel in the case, Hiers v. The Board of Regents of the University of North Texas System, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Sherman Division.
Hiers obtained his doctorate in mathematics in May 2019 and began teaching full time at the university in the fall of 2019. In November, someone anonymously left a stack of fliers warning about “microaggressions” in the mathematics department’s faculty lounge, where professors discuss all manner of topics and issues, often with a heavy dose of banter. In that manner, Hiers looked through the fliers, disagreed with what was said, and jokingly wrote on the chalkboard, “Don’t leave garbage lying around,” with an arrow pointing to the fliers.
Rather than allow faculty members to engage each other like they do on any other issue, Schmidt scolded Hiers, saying that criticizing the papers was “stupid” and “cowardly.” Hiers explained that, if it’s fine to leave political fliers lying around in the lounge, criticizing them should be fine too. The next week, however, Schmidt fired Hiers without notice by cancelling his contract to teach in the spring.
Schmidt later informed Hiers that the “microaggression” flier was not “political,” and that the statements listed in the flier made “very much sense.” As the ADF lawsuit explains, “In so doing, Defendant Schmidt was expressing his own views on the topic of ‘microaggressions,’ disagreeing with Dr. Hiers’ views, and punishing Dr. Hiers for expressing his views…. Schmidt used his opinion to ignore reasonable views opposing the ‘microaggression’ fliers and ultimately to punish Dr. Hiers for expressing his own opinion.”
Schmidt also said Hiers was being fired for leaving an anonymous “upsetting” message in the faculty lounge, ignoring the fact that the flyers themselves were an anonymous message that could be perceived as upsetting. Schmidt made no attempt to identify, let alone discipline, whomever left the fliers in the faculty lounge. He has also never disciplined any other professor who has made anonymous remarks on the faculty lounge’s chalkboard, nor did Schmidt appear to understand the teasing, humorous manner in which Hiers expressed his views.
Even though Hiers’ remarks never threatened anyone, Schmidt said to Hiers, “The implicit message [of those remarks] is, ‘Don’t you dare bring up nonsense like microaggressions, or else,’” ironically ignoring the fact that Schmidt’s and the university’s message to Hiers and anyone else aware of the situation is, as the lawsuit explains, “Don’t you dare disagree with me (or us) on microaggressions (and related issues), or else.”
The university’s Misconduct Policy also expressly guarantees a process for disciplinary action, including notification of the specific policies violated, time to respond both orally and in writing, the right to present evidence, the ability to seek advice and assistance from a faculty associate, and sufficient time for information gathering and appeals. Neither Schmidt nor anyone else at the university followed those steps in terminating Hiers.
“Today’s college students are our future legislators, judges, and voters. That’s why it’s so important that public universities model the First Amendment values they’re supposed to be teaching students,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “The person who left the fliers was able to express his or her views; Dr. Hiers should have had the same freedom. That’s the message the university should be modeling.”