A Christian employee of a university who was punished for publicly expressing a personal opinion is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review her case.
Crystal Dixon, a former human resources administrator for the University of Toledo represented by the American Freedom Law Center, was fired in 2008 for comments on homosexuality submitted to the op-ed page of a local newspaper.
At the district and appellate court levels, judges said the university’s interests in controlling its diversity program trumped Dixon’s constitutional speech rights as a citizen.
In the petition to the Supreme Court, AFLC co-founder and senior counsel Robert Muise noted that the U.S. courts of appeals are divided in their application of the law to government employee speech cases.
Arguing that the 6th Circuit’s decision violated core principles of the First Amendment, Muise wrote: “‘If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.’ [University officials] seek to prescribe what ‘shall be orthodox’ in matters of opinion by permitting university employees to express personal messages that promote certain favored viewpoints on controversial political and social issues, while censoring certain disfavored viewpoints, such as [Dixon's] Christian viewpoint on the issue of gay rights. As a result of [the university's] speech restriction, that ‘fixed star’ in our constitutional constellation has been obscured and an official orthodoxy prescribed in direct violation of the First Amendment.”
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit dismissed Dixon’s case Dec. 17, 2012, and sided with the lower court.
Dixon, on April 3, 2008, had read an editorial published in the Toledo Free Press that equated the “struggles” of “gay” rights activists with the civil rights struggles of African-Americans. Dixon, an African-American and practicing Christian, disagreed with the comparison and subsequently submitted her own opinion piece.
She wrote: “I respectfully submit a different perspective for [the author of the original op-ed] and Toledo Free Press readers to consider. … I take great umbrage at the notion that those choosing the homosexual lifestyle are civil rights victims.” Dixon signed her opinion piece as “Crystal Dixon.”
University officials determined she was not allowed to state that opinion and fired her on May 12, 2008.
Her attorneys pointed out that precedent is “well settled that ‘a state cannot condition public employment on a basis that infringes the employee’s constitutionally protected interest in freedom of expression.’”
“There is no dispute that plaintiff was speaking on a matter of public concern and was thus terminated as a result of her speech,” court papers explain. “And there is no reasonable dispute that when plaintiff was writing her opinion piece on her personal computer from her home on a Sunday, she was not speaking pursuant to her official duties with the university, but as a private citizen.
“This speech must be accorded the greatest weight … and not presumptively dismissed, as the panel did here, thus allowing a government employer to suppress speech based on a broad rendering of its ‘diversity’ values,” the petition said.
“Additionally, the university president, Defendant [Lloyd] Jacobs, was permitted to express his personal and controversial opinions on the very same subject in the Toledo Free Press without being punished for doing so.”
In fact, Jacobs announced a very public threat in his guest column over the issue, stating, “We will be taking certain internal actions in this instance to more fully align our utterances and actions with this value system.”
Dixon’s “comments do not accord with the values of the University of Toledo,” he wrote.
The petition to the high court noted that university wants to “monopolize the ‘marketplace of ideas’ by only permitting the public expression of personal opinions that comport with the official orthodoxy established by the university, in direct violation of the First Amendment.”
The filing continued: “Petitioner’s op-ed was published in the … local newspaper in response to an earlier published editorial written by a private individual. … Petitioner’s article was not directed toward, nor critical of, the university, university policies, or anyone employed by the university. … Petitioner addressed this issue of public concern from her perspective as a Christian, African-American woman (not as an employee of the university).
“Here, respondents have effectively disqualified Christians (certainly those who publicly profess their faith) from holding managerial positions at the university because their traditional religious beliefs do not comport with the university’s ‘diversity’ values,” the filing said.