Censorship Costs a Texas University $165,000
Colleges and universities are supposed to be places where students and faculty can respectfully discuss and debate important ideas. But today, many campuses have become nothing more than echo chambers where only one side of a given argument is tolerated.
Dr. Nathaniel Hiers found that out the hard way when he was unjustly fired for expressing his views to his colleagues. Dr. Hiers turned to Alliance Defending Freedom for help. Read on to learn more about his story.
Who is Dr. Nathaniel Hiers?
Dr. Nathaniel Hiers is a former professor at the University of North Texas, where he served in the mathematics department. He obtained his Ph.D. in mathematics from the university in May 2019, and he began teaching full-time during the next fall.
But when Dr. Hiers voiced his opposition to one particular idea, he was punished with the loss of his job.
Hiers v. The Board of Regents of the University of North Texas System
In the math department, Dr. Hiers and his colleagues had access to a faculty lounge. Professors would often discuss many kinds of issues in the lounge, and they sometimes bantered with each other about their ideas.
One day in November 2019, someone anonymously left a stack of flyers in the faculty lounge discussing the alleged harms of “microaggressions.” The flyers defined “microaggressions” as “verbal and nonverbal behaviors” that “communicate negative, hostile, and derogatory messages to people rooted in their marginalized group membership.”
According to the flyers, “microaggressions” can be intentional but are often “subtle, indirect, and unintentional.”
The flyers urged professors to note that “microaggressions” can have negative impacts on minority groups. They said statements such as “America is a melting pot” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” qualified as “microaggressions” because they advocated for “the myth of meritocracy” and “color blindness.”
Dr. Hiers thoroughly disagrees with the concept of “microaggressions” as expressed on the flyers. In fact, he believes the concept of “microaggressions” hurts diversity and tolerance. Dr. Hiers believes that encouraging people to view unintentional comments as attacks leads them to assume the worst in others and to view themselves as perpetual victims. In addition, he feels that the concept of “microaggressions” suppresses meaningful debate by falsely characterizing honest viewpoints as attacks on minority groups.
Dr. Hiers went back into the faculty lounge later, he saw that they flyers were still there. He jokingly wrote, “Please don’t leave garbage lying around,” on the chalkboard with an arrow pointing to the flyers.
The next day, the chair of the math department sent a picture of the chalkboard message to the whole department and wrote, “Would the person who did this please stop being a coward and see me in the chair’s office immediately. Thank you.”
Dr. Hiers responded that he did not believe it was “cowardly” to poke fun at political flyers left in the lounge, and he believed he should be able to express his beliefs in the same way as the person who left the flyers. Still, he said he would come by the chair’s office.
Dr. Hiers met with the chair, who told him that his message on the chalkboard was “stupid.” He pressured Dr. Hiers to apologize, but Dr. Hiers did not believe an apology was necessary.
The chair also asked if Dr. Hiers would be “interested” in diversity training, and Dr. Hiers said he was not. The chair did not indicate the training was mandatory, nor did he suggest he would punish Dr. Hiers due to the incident.
After Thanksgiving break in 2019, Dr. Hiers went to the math department office to sign his offer letter for the next semester. An assistant told him that the chair had his offer letter and was not in the office.
Later that day, Dr. Hiers received an email informing him that his employment had been terminated and that he would not be teaching in the spring.
Dr. Hiers sent an email to the chair asking why he had been fired, and the chair gave several reasons, all related to the chalkboard message. He told Dr. Hiers he was firing him because he would not recant his beliefs or attend diversity training, and he said Dr. Hiers’ decision to write his message on the chalkboard was “not compatible with the values of this department.”
In April 2020, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of Dr. Hiers. A federal district court ruled that the university likely violated Dr. Hiers’ First Amendment rights and allowed the lawsuit to proceed.
Following the district court’s ruling, the University of North Texas agreed to a settlement in which it paid $165,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees for violating Dr. Hiers’ First Amendment rights. The settlement protected the freedom of speech by ensuring the university could not receive a free pass for violating the Constitution.
- December 2019: The University of North Texas terminated Dr. Nathaniel Hiers’ employment after he jokingly poked fun at a political flyer in the faculty lounge.
- April 2020: ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of Dr. Hiers.
- March 2022: A federal district court ruled the university likely violated Dr. Hiers’ First Amendment rights and allowed the lawsuit to proceed.
- September 2022: The university agreed to a settlement in which it paid $165,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees for violating Dr. Hiers’ constitutional rights.
The bottom line
The right to free speech is for everyone—not just those in power. Tolerance is a two-way street.
ADF team members contributed to the writing and publication of this article.