The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently handed down a disappointing ruling in an important speech case, holding that a college professor who has been the target of escalating retaliation by his university for criticizing his department is not protected by the First Amendment.
North Carolina State’s Stephen Porter, a tenured professor on the NC State faculty since 2011, first got into trouble with higher-ups in 2016 when he objected to adding a question about “diversity” to student course evaluations. What followed was a mounting series of attempts by the university to rid themselves of Porter and to stifle dissent.
Porter was accused of “bullying” the person who had proposed adding the question. Later, in 2018, after Porter sent an email linking an Inside Higher Ed article that alleged an NC State faculty search was slanted to favor a minority applicant, Porter was told the administration would “find ways to exclude [Porter] from critical aspects of his job.” In 2019, Porter received another email that stated that students in the department were having strong reactions to his criticism of the Association of the Study of Higher Education (ASHE).
Finally, on July 5, 2019, Porter received notice that he was being removed from the Higher Education Program Area – a valued post – because the faculty could not make progress toward resolving issues with him there. After this incident and other punishments, Porter filed suit against NC State in 2021.
Porter’s case was first dismissed by the district court judge, who argued he had no legal grounds. Now, the Fourth Circuit has upheld the district court’s ruling, holding that Porter’s statements were not protected by the First Amendment because they were made in his capacity as an NC State employee, nor was his “bullying” protected because it was “an unprofessional attack on a colleague.”
Enter Judge Julius Richardson, the lone dissenter in this case.
In his dissent, Judge Richardson persuasively argues that Porter’s comments on the ASHE are protected by the First Amendment. Porter could have remained silent about the diversity question and about the drift of ASHE into ideological activism. Porter was not required to submit his opinion as part of his job, and, therefore, he was speaking as a citizen and is protected under the First Amendment.
Furthermore, Judge Richardson took issue with the majority’s assertion that because the school did not act against Porter for more than six months after the last of his controversial statements, he had not clearly established that his speech was the reason for the punitive actions taken against him. Judge Richardson argues that obviously NC State had for years been ratcheting up its threats against Porter because his statements frustrated the department’s activist objectives. It strains credulity to think that Porter’s criticism of the department wasn’t the motivating reason.
In the last instance, however, Judge Richardson noted that “bullying” does not push Porter’s speech outside of First Amendment protection. Even if that characterization were true, the First Amendment would be toothless if it didn’t cover offensive speech. (Porter did in one conversation use a four-letter word.) Contrast this treatment to Georgetown University’s acceptance of a professor who tweeted that sitting Supreme Court Justices should suffer miserable deaths and have their corpses castrated.
We commend Judge Richardson for his valiant stand in defense of the First Amendment. The issues at stake make this case ripe for SCOTUS review. If Porter’s case is left as-is, his situation would provide a dangerous roadmap for censorious administrators around the country on how to micromanage dissenting faculty until they either quit in frustration or can be fired. We look forward to further developments in this case.