A jury in North Carolina found that a university unfairly denied promotion to a professor who was celebrated when he was hired as an atheist but then faced retaliation when he became a Christian.
The decision in favor of Mike Adams, a criminology professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, was an important victory for academic freedom and the First Amendment, said the Alliance Defending Freedom and the American Center for Law and Justice.
ADF represented Adams together with lead counsel David French, who began the case with ADF and now litigates for ACLJ.
A former atheist, Adams frequently received praise from his colleagues after the university hired him as an assistant professor in 1993 and promoted him to associate professor in 1998.
But some of his views on political and social issues soon reflected his adoption of Christianity in 2000. Subsequently, his advocates said, the university subjected Adams to a campaign of academic persecution, including intrusive investigations, baseless accusations and other factors that culminated in his denial of promotion to full professor, despite an award-winning record of teaching, research and service.
In his lawsuit against the university, attorneys argued that officials denied him a deserved promotion because they disagreed with the content of his nationally syndicated opinion columns that espoused religious and political views contrary to the opinions held by university officials.
Named as defendants were the school, its trustees and other school officials, including a dean, Stephen McNamee, and chancellor, Gary Miller.
The jury found that Adams’ “speech activity’ was “a substantial or motivating factor in the defendants’ decision to not promote” him.
The jury also found that the defendants would not have made the same decision “in the absence of plaintiffs’ speech activity.”
“We are grateful that the jury today reaffirmed the fundamental principle that universities are a marketplace of ideas, not a place where professors face retaliation for having a different view than university officials,” said ADF Litigation Staff Counsel Travis Barham, who participated in the trial this week. “As the jury decided, disagreeing with an accomplished professor’s religious and political views is no grounds for denying him a promotion.”
“The jury saw what we have long known to be true about the wrong done to Dr. Adams,” said Senior Legal Counsel David Hacker. “The verdict is a powerful message for academic freedom and free speech at America’s public universities.”
“We’re grateful the jury determined what we have long known to be true – that the university violated Dr. Adams’ constitutional rights when it denied his promotion,” said French, ACLJ senior counsel. “This is an important victory for academic freedom and the First Amendment.”
The case went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit for a ruling in 2011 that said “no individual loses his ability to speak as a private citizen by virtue of public employment.”
The court said Adams’ columns “addressed topics such as academic freedom, civil rights, campus culture, sex, feminism, abortion, homosexuality, religion, and morality.”
“Such topics plainly touched on issues of public, rather than private, concern.”
Adams had a novel way of making his point, as WND reported a year ago.
For example, in a Townhall.com column he poked fun at the idea a university should exclude a Chick-fil-A restaurant from its property because of pro-family views of the company’s owner.
Such exclusion, which Adams described as “queer reasoning,” would make the university more “inclusive,” campaigners apparently believed.
“I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve decided that our LGBTQIA Office here on my campus makes me feel uncomfortable. In fact, the rainbow is a symbol of hate. So, next week, I plan to introduce a resolution to ban them from campus,” he wrote. “I expect the resolution to be defeated because it is idiotic. I’m just hoping I get a special office as a consolation prize – simply for being a narrow minded bigot.”
Lawyers reported when Adams was denied promotion in 2006, he had “multiple awards and rave reviews from students for his teaching, he had published more peer-reviewed articles than all but two of his colleagues, and he had a distinguished record of service both on and off campus, culminating in earning UNCW’s highest service award.”
William Creeley, writing on the website of the the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the case raised concerns.
“While the government as employer may reasonably expect a significant amount of control over the public speech of district attorneys, that same amount of control over the scholarly research and teaching of public university faculty members is inappropriate and amounts to an infringement on academic freedom.”