A federal judge has ordered the University of North Carolina at Wilmington to pay more than $700,000 in legal fees in a case charging the school violated the speech rights of an applicant for a professorship.
But the university may not be done racking up the bills. It has appealed a court order that it promote Mike Adams to professor and reimburse him an additional $50,000 for lost salary.
University officials said they didn’t think it was fair taxpayers be penalized that much for the school’s actions.
According to a report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the protracted legal battle “can be fairly characterized as a series of failures by the university to cut its losses and own up to its mistakes.”
The verdict and award for Adams, who faced discrimination because of his Christian viewpoint, came from Senior U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard.
The drawn-out case has included a trip to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that Adams’ statements were entitled to protection under the First Amendment. A jury later decided on liability and damages.
“If there’s anything that a public university hates more than being branded a constitutional violator in court, it’s being ordered to pay for it,” said FIRE’s Ari Cohn. “And in that regard, UNC Wilmington’s chickens have certainly come home to roost.”
University officials released a statement when the initial request for costs and fees was made.
“We do not believe it is appropriate to require the taxpayers of North Carolina to underwrite such potentially excessive lawyer fees and costs,” the university said.
FIRE argued, however, “that what is not appropriate is that the university put the taxpayers of North Carolina on the hook for the bill in the first place.”
“If taxpayers are upset about paying the price of UNC Wilmington’s violation of First Amendment rights, they should be upset with the university and its administration for violating the law and stubbornly pressing on at each phase of the lawsuit,” the group said.
The education-rights organization said, when the university announced yet another plea: “It’s not clear how far UNC Wilmington’s misguided appeal will go.”
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 actions 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.
Ultimately, the judge granted a request for Adams’ promotion to the rank of full professor, as of 2007, “when the promotion would have taken effect had UNC Wilmington not violated Adams’ First Amendment rights,” according to FIRE.
The judge also rejected defense requests for any changes in the jury verdict or a new trial.
“The court is fully satisfied there was sufficient evidence as a matter of law presented to the jury to find for plaintiff,” he said.
The jury had 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.”
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 said that 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.”
FIRE said Adams’ complaint was particularly significant because such discrimination cases are “notoriously hard to prove and to win.”
“What makes Adams’ case exceptional, then, is that even without an outright admission of viewpoint-based discrimination by his supervisors, a federal jury (made up of people who, unlike FIRE, are not immersed in the culture of academia) was able to discern that there was something awfully suspicious about the university’s disregard for its own promotion standards and its concerted campaign to diminish Adams’ academic accomplishments. They were able to connect the dots when presented with evidence that university officials ignored established standards and guidelines for promotions and forwarded misinformation about his academic record,” FIRE said.