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In Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593 (1972), the Supreme Court ruled that public university officials violated the First Amendment when they terminated a junior college professor for publicly criticizing the Board of Regents. The Court established that public college officials “may not deny a benefit to a person on a basis that infringes his … freedom of speech.”

Board of Regents failed to renew Sindermann’s contract for criticizing them

The case began when Robert Sindermann, a junior college government instructor at Odessa College in Odessa, Texas, testified before the state legislature in his capacity as the President of the Texas Junior College Teachers Association. Sindermann spoke about the need for greater academic freedom and advocated for the elevation of Odessa College from a two-year to a four-year program. The Board of Regents responded by failing to renew Sindermann’s annual contract because of his “insubordination.”

Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sindermann

Sindermann responded by filing a federal lawsuit, alleging a violation of his First Amendment and procedural due process rights. A federal district court dismissed Sindermann’s suit, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. College officials then appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted review and ruled in Sindermann’s favor.

Writing for the Court, Justice Potter Stewart rejected the officials’ argument that Sindermann had no constitutional claim because he had no tenure or contractual right to reemployment. Stewart wrote that the lack of tenure was “immaterial to his free-speech claim” and that Sindermann’s “allegations presented a bona-fide constitutional claim.” He wrote that the case should be remanded to the lower court for a full exploration of Sindermann’s First Amendment claim. Several months after the case was sent back to the lower courts, the Board of Regents settled with Sindermann for about $48,000.

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.

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