Judges slap down university for fake academic freedom

By Bob Unruh

John McAdams
John McAdams

Officials at Marquette University in Milwaukee were rebuked Friday by the state Supreme Court for trying to install a politically correct code of conduct for their tenured professors that succumbs “to the dominant academic culture of micro-aggressions, trigger warnings and safe spaces.”

The dispute centered on professor John McAdams, who criticized a graduate teaching assistant in a blog post for telling a student that the concept of “gay rights” is undisputed and anyone who thinks otherwise is “homophobic.”

The university suspended McAdams for his criticism, and he never was reinstated because he refused to write an apology. The university insisted the courts should have nothing to do with the dispute.

Officials at the private Roman Catholic institution learned otherwise Friday.

The court ruled in favor of McAdams, concluding he had a right to sue and must be reinstated immediately, with all back pay and other benefits to which he may have been entitled.

“The university denies Dr. McAdams’ right to litigate his breach of contract claim in our courts,” the court said. “Instead, it says, we must defer to its procedure for suspending and dismissing tenured faculty members. It claims we may not question its decision so long as it did not abuse its discretion, infringe any constitutional rights, act in bad faith, or engage in fraud.”

The state high court said the university “is mistaken.”

“We may question, and we do not defer. The university’s internal dispute resolution process is not a substitute for Dr. McAdams’ right to sue in our courts. The university’s internal process may serve it well as an informal means of resolving disputes, but as a replacement for litigation in our courts, it is structurally flawed.”

The majority opinion said the “undisputed facts show that the university breached its contract with Dr. McAdams when it suspended him for engaging in activity protected by the contract’s guarantee of academic freedom.”

“Therefore, we reverse the circuit court and remand this case with instructions to enter judgment in favor of Dr. McAdams, conduct further proceedings to determine damages (which shall include back pay), and order the university to immediately reinstate Dr. McAdams with unimpaired rank, tenure, compensation, and benefits.”

In a special concurrence written by Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley, the case was characterized as putting “academic freedom” on trial.

“Would the sacred ‘right of faculty members to speak as citizens – that is, ‘to address the larger community with regard to any matter of social, political, economic or other interest without institutional discipline or restraint” – succumb to the dominant academic culture of micro-aggressions, trigger warnings and safe spaces that seeks to silence unpopular speech by deceptively recasting it as violence?

“In this battle, only one could prevail, for academic freedom cannot coexist with Orwellian speech police. Academic freedom means nothing if faculty is forced to self-censor in fear of offending the unforeseen and ever-evolving sensitivities of adversaries demanding retribution,” she wrote.

The dispute began when McAdams commented on graduate teaching assistant Cheryl Abbate’s treatment of a student in a Philosophy of Ethics class in 2014.

“The student explained that he did not favor same-sex marriage and was dismayed that the teacher had not allowed discussion of a viewpoint questioning same-sex marriage during class. The instructor told the student that she considered his opinion homophobic and therefore out of bounds.”

McAdams’ response was: “Like the rest of academia, Marquette is less and less a real university. And when gay marriage cannot be discussed, certainly not a Catholic university.”

His comments were posted on his personal blog, Marquette Warrior.

A month later, without presenting McAdams with any formal charges, Marquette suspended him, canceled his classes and banned him from campus. The university later insinuated that McAdams violated a harassment policy and that his punishments stemmed from his naming the instructor in his blog post and linking to her blog.

Robert Shibley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said: “As FIRE has argued since the beginning, Marquette was wrong to fire John McAdams simply for criticizing a graduate student instructor who unilaterally decided that a matter of political interest was no longer up for debate by students. This ruling rightly demonstrates that when a university promises academic freedom, it is required to deliver.”

Ari Cohn, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said administrators “cannot simply decide that they do not like the results of certain faculty speech, and then work backwards to find a justification for firing them.”

“The court’s decision recognized that allowing a university to do so is incompatible with any meaningful understanding of academic freedom,” he said. “Colleges and universities across the country that are facing calls to discipline faculty members for their online speech should pay attention to today’s decision.”

Though Marquette is a private, Roman Catholic institution not bound by the First Amendment, the university promises faculty “the full and free enjoyment of legitimate personal or academic freedoms.” The university also explicitly guarantees that “dismissal will not be used to restrain faculty members in their exercise of academic freedom of other rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution.”

McAdams was represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, whose president, Rick Esenberg, said the ruling was “a major blow in favor of free speech.”

Justice Daniel Kelly pointed out in the majority opinion how Abbate had written “gay rights” on the board and then “airily” stated “everybody agrees on this, and there is no need to discuss it.”

A student, after class, said that topic should have been open for discussion.

Abbatte lashed out, stating “some opinions are not appropriate, such as racist opinions, sexist opinions.”

She said, “You don’t have a right in this class to make homophobic comments.”

The court opinion noted that the deciding body in McAdams’ case was the university itself, which brought the charges against him.

The panel that made the recommendation included another professor who publicly had excoriated McAdams for his comments.

McAdams has been a professor Marquette for more than 30 years and is a vocal conservative.

When WND called the university Friday to seek comment, the telephone rang unanswered.

The university later emailed a statement to WND that claimed the dispute was all about “harm” that McAdams had done to the teacher’s career.

The university statement did not address what the teacher did to the student, foreclosing any discussion about a significant social topic and applying the derogatory “homophobe” label.

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