Now, a federal court has ruled that he may continue his lawsuit against UNT on the grounds that the university violated his First Amendment rights.
The initial incident, which both parties characterize as a joke, took place in November 2019. Hiers labeled a stack of fliers meant to discourage microaggressions as “garbage” in a message on a blackboard in a faculty lounge.
Hiers’s offer to continue teaching in the next semester was rescinded shortly afterward. UNT Mathematics Department Chair Ralf Schmidt explained in an email that UNT chose to terminate Hiers because of the blackboard message, his impenitence, and his lack of interest in further diversity training. Hiers then sued.
Hiers alleged several violations of the law in his original complaint. UNT moved to dismiss his claims on the grounds that legal precedent only protects the speech of public employees if it relates to a matter of “public concern.”
Jordan dismissed several of Hiers’s claims but said he has plausibly alleged some First Amendment violations.
“Public employees do not surrender all First Amendment rights because of their employment,” Jordan wrote.
With regards to whether Hiers’s blackboard message related to a topic of “public concern,” Jordan said the political nature of Hiers’s critique — however hasty or ill-formed — meant that it qualified for First Amendment protection under court precedent.
“The lynchpin of the inquiry, then, is the extent to which the speech advances an idea that transcends personal interest or conveys a message that impacts our social or political lives… Here, Hiers’s critique of the flyer on microaggressions transcended personal interest and touched on a topic that impacts citizens’ social and political lives. His speech did not address a personal complaint or grievance about his employment,” Jordan wrote.
“Putting aside whatever one might think about his viewpoint, an objective reader would understand Hiers’s criticism of microaggressions as a criticism concerning a hotly contested cultural issue in this country.”
On March 18, Jordan ordered the parties to discuss the possibility of settlement before April 7.
Hiers is seeking reinstatement, damages, and an injunction that would prohibit UNT from enforcing certain provisions of the university misconduct policy.
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