Professor sues university alleging unlawful firing over criticism of ‘microaggressions’ flier

Unsplash/Nathan Dumlao
Unsplash/Nathan Dumlao

A fired math professor has sued a university in Texas, accusing it of unlawfully firing him over criticizing a flier listing microaggressions.

Nathaniel Hiers filed the suit on Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas against the University of North Texas, saying he was fired in an “untimely and unconstitutional” manner.

According to the complaint, last November, an unknown person had left a stack of fliers warning about “microaggressions” in the faculty lounge of the math department.

The fliers describe “microaggressions” as “verbal and nonverbal behaviors” that “communicate negative, hostile, and derogatory messages to people rooted in their marginalized group membership (based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.).” The fliers offered examples of statements considered microaggressions —  “America is a melting pot,” “I believe the most qualified person should get the job,” and “America is the land of opportunity.”

They also condemned as microaggressions “sexist/heterosexist language,” such as “[b]eing forced to choose Male or Female when completing basic forms.”

Hiers took issue with the claims of the fliers and proceeded to write the message “Don’t leave garbage lying around” with an arrow pointing to the stack.

In response, says the lawsuit, the department chair scolded Hiers for his actions and then dismissed the professor the following week by canceling his contract to teach in spring semester.

“By retaliating against Dr. Hiers for exercising his First Amendment rights, Defendants violated his First Amendment right to free speech, placed unconstitutional conditions on Dr. Hiers’ employment, deprived him of due process and equal protection of law, and breached its contract with him,” reads the complaint, in part.

“The University does not restrain the discretion of its officials or otherwise prohibit officials from punishing or retaliating against a faculty member for engaging in constitutionally protected conduct or expression.”

Hiers is being represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative law firm that has argued First Amendment cases before the United States Supreme Court.

“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 statement released Thursday.

“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.’”

Hiers, the complaint says, "firmly rejects bias and prejudice against any person or group of people," but "believes that the concept of 'microaggressions,' while purporting to serve those ends, actually hurts diversity and tolerance.

"Dr. Hiers believes that many of the statements that the flier condemns as 'microaggressions' can (and should) be interpreted in a benign or positive manner. But the fliers teach people to focus on the worst possible interpretation of the statement, to disregard the speaker’s intent, and to impute a discriminatory motive to others."

Merriam-Webster defines a microaggression as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).”

Jenée Desmond-Harris of the liberal news site traced the term back to the 1970s and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce, who created the term to describe insults he had witnessed against African-Americans.

“These [racial] assaults to black dignity and black hope are incessant and cumulative. Any single one may be gross. In fact, the major vehicle for racism in this country is offenses done to blacks by whites in this sort of gratuitous neverending way,” wrote Pierce, as quoted by Vox.

“These mini disasters accumulate. It is the sum total of multiple microaggressions by whites to blacks that has pervasive effect to the stability and peace of this world.”

Critics of the term have argued that the concept of microaggressions, while real, is often misused to censor dialogue and to foster a culture of victimhood.

“If you establish a positive right to be free from alienating comments, it's hard to restrict that right only to people who have been victimized in certain ways, or to certain degrees,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle in a 2015 piece.

“The result will be proliferation of groups claiming victim status, attempting to trump the victim status of others.”

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