University of North Texas (UNT) has agreed to pay $165,000 to settle a First Amendment lawsuit brought by a former math professor, who was fired after mocking the concept of “microaggressions” as “garbage.”
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative Christian legal group representing professor Nathaniel Hiers in the case, celebrated the settlement as a “win for free speech on public university campuses.”
“We hope this is the first step in the university restoring its role as a marketplace of ideas rather than an echo chamber for one viewpoint,” said ADF senior counsel Tyson Langhofer.
The case stemmed from an incident in November 2019, when someone anonymously left a stack of flyers warning against “microaggressions” in the UNT mathematics department’s faculty lounge.
The flyer, according to the complaint (pdf), discourages the use of certain apparently innocuous and non-threatening expressions to avoid these so-called “microaggressions.” Statements such as “America is a melting pot,” “I believe the most qualified person should get the job,” and “America is the land of opportunity,” are deemed microaggressive, because they propagate the “myth of meritocracy” and promote “color blindness.”
Hiers, an adjunct professor at the time, read through the leaflets and jokingly wrote on a nearby chalkboard, “Don’t leave garbage lying around,” with an arrow pointing to the stack.
Hiers said his department chair pressured him to apologize for the comments and demanded that he attend extra “diversity training,” which he declined. In December 2019, he was told that the public university wouldn’t renew his teaching contract specifically because of his chalkboard message and subsequent response.
Hiers sued UNT in April 2020 for violating his free speech and due process rights. In March, a federal district court dismissed some of his claims, but found the First Amendment retaliation claim “plausible.”
“Taking these allegations as true and viewing them in the light most favorable to Hiers, it is plausible that the university officials unconstitutionally punished Hiers for refusing to affirm a view—the concept of microaggressions—with which he disagrees,” wrote Judge Sean D. Jordan, a Trump appointee.
In a statement regarding the settlement, those representing the university said they hope this will allow them to shift the focus back to their educational mission.
“The agreement allows the university to devote our attention and resources to our mission rather than to years of protracted court proceedings,” UNT said, adding that its “commitment to our faculty members’ rights to free expression and to our students’ rights to an inclusive, nondiscriminatory educational environment” remains unchanged.