Robert Sindermann looks back with pride upon the seminal U.S. Supreme Court decision that bears his name. More than 30 years ago, Sindermann, a government professor at Odessa College in Odessa, Texas, publicly disagreed with the college’s Board of Regents. It cost him his job when the regents decided not to renew his teaching contract.
Sindermann battled back in court and eventually obtained nearly $50,000 for his efforts. Moreover, in his free-speech battle, Sindermann also established an important constitutional principle before the United States Supreme Court.
Free-speech expert Robert O’Neil, founder of the Virginia-based Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said the case was one of two decisions that “recognized for the first time a clear ‘liberty’ interest in challenging adverse actions based upon — and often in reprisal against — outspoken expression of opinion.”
Sindermann’s troubles began when he was elected president of the Texas Junior College Teachers Association. In that capacity, Sindermann testified before the state Legislature on the need for academic freedom for junior college teachers and also publicly advocated that the public college in Odessa be elevated to a four-year program.
Sindermann says he pushed for this change because young people in Odessa needed more schooling options. State school officials instead wanted to keep Odessa a two-year program and establish a four-year program in Midland, Texas. “Young folks in Odessa needed better educational opportunities, unless they, like their parents, were to wind up in the oil fields as laborers,” he said. “That is why I did what I did.”
The professor’s actions landed him in hot water with the Board of Regents, which opposed the call for a four-year university in Odessa. The board voted not to renew Sindermann’s contract of employment for the 1969-1970 school year. They did not give Sindermann a hearing to contest their decision.
The professor did not take the firing lying down. Instead, he filed a federal lawsuit, alleging violations of his First Amendment and due-process rights.
“I was convinced that they had violated my constitutional rights,” Sindermann said. “They denied me the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances when I was punished for appearing and testifying before the Texas state Legislature.”
The Board of Regents denied that their decision not to retain Sindermann was made in retaliation for his public criticism. Instead, they argued that he was terminated because of insubordinate conduct.
A federal district court denied Sindermann’s claims and granted summary judgment to the school officials. A federal appeals court reversed that ruling, finding that the lower court had erred in dismissing Sindermann’s suit. The Board of Regents appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Sindermann originally hoped the high court would not hear the case.
“When the Court agreed to review the decision, I was angered,” Sindermann said. “I did not want the Court to take the case because the 5th Circuit had given me what I had wanted. We had a perfectly good ruling from the 5th Circuit. I thought when the Supreme Court took the case, I feared they would rule against me. They had a bunch of conservatives there.”
Supreme Court decision
The Court surprised Sindermann by unanimously ruling in his favor. “When the decision came down, I was surprised because this court had a bunch of conservative guys.”
The Board of Regents had argued that Sindermann’s constitutional claims were defeated by the fact that the school had not adopted a tenure system. They argued that the lack of tenure automatically defeated his constitutional claims. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed in its June 29, 1972, decision in Perry v. Sindermann.
The Court wrote in oft-cited language that the government (represented in this case by public college officials) “may not deny a benefit to a person on a basis that infringes his constitutionally protected interests — especially, his interest in freedom of speech.” The Court continued: “For if the government could deny a benefit to a person because of his constitutionally protected speech or associations, his exercise of those freedoms would in effect be penalized and inhibited.”
The Court reasoned that Sindermann’s lack of tenure was “immaterial to his free speech claim” and that his “allegations present a bona fide constitutional claim.” The high court ruled that the decision should go back down to the lower court to determine the true motivation for the board of regents’ actions. The Board of Regents later agreed to settle the case rather than go to trial.
“I felt great after the Supreme Court’s decision,” Sindermann said. “What I established was that teachers are entitled to the same constitutional rights as ordinary Americans.”
Free-speech experts say the case bearing his name carries significance in constitutional law.
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh said, “Perry held that even untenured faculty members have free-speech rights and that the government is limited in its ability to dismiss them.”
O’Neil said the decision “added much both to free speech and academic freedom.”
Settlement, blacklist, reflection
Several months after his Supreme Court victory, the Board of Regents agreed to pay Sindermann $48,000 for his three-year-battle. At the time, Sindermann was quoted by the NEA Journal as saying: “This vindication has been long in coming and I have learned from hard experience how agonizingly slow justice can be in this country. But as usual, victory, however long delayed, is sweet.”
Years later, the retired Sindermann still relishes the sweet taste of his victory before the highest court in the land. “I am still honored that I was able to vindicate the free-speech rights of public employees and especially teachers,” he says.
However, Sindermann says that he paid a price for his defense of teachers’ free-speech rights. “After I first filed the suit, I was blacklisted,” Sindermann said. “I applied for jobs at 225 colleges and universities and received only one bid.”
Having no luck at landing a teaching job, Sindermann worked at what he termed “various government jobs in the meantime” until he landed a job in the fall of 1977 at San Antonio College. He taught there until 1986, when he took early retirement.
“One of the biggest lessons I learned,” Sindermann said, “is that the price of free speech is quite high. You have to stand up for your constitutional rights if they are trampled upon.”
Sindermann says he is quite pleased that the decision in his case has not been overturned. “The Supreme Court has never overruled it,” he says. “It has stood up pretty good, which is surprising and refreshing.”