MacIver News Service | April 18, 2018
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Thursday in the academic freedom lawsuit of embattled Marquette University political science professor John McAdams.
At stake, perhaps, is nothing less than the First Amendment protections contractually afforded to university faculty – at Marquette and beyond.
McAdams sued the Catholic university after the administration fired him for blogging on his personal site in November 2014 about a graduate student teacher who forbade a student in her Theory of Ethics class from discussing his opposition to same-sex marriage. The student teacher, Cheryl Abbate, told the student that doing so would be homophobic and offensive.
Marquette administrators suspended McAdams, insisting that the nationally renowned political science professor violated the university’s code of conduct when he identified Abbate in his blog post. In spring 2016, Marquette President Michael Lovell demanded the conservative professor, a long-time critic of Marquette’s increasingly liberal policies, apologize for his actions. Then, and only then, could McAdams return to the classroom. McAdams declined to do so, and filed a wrongful termination lawsuit.
He was suspended without pay and exiled from the campus.
McAdams and his attorney, Rick Esenberg of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, have argued that, while the professor isn’t necessarily protected under the First Amendment, his right to speak freely (even criticize the university and its staff) is indisputably protected through his employment contract.
McAdams has received some legal backup from the National Association of Scholars. The prominent national network has filed an amicus – or friend of the court – brief defending McAdams’ “civil, factually accurate blog post.” They assert the long-serving political science professor had a right to criticize the graduate student instructor even if she, too, was a student.
“ … (I)t has long been accepted that when a student has openly engaged in speech that might plausibly be viewed as bigoted, there is no ‘safe space’ for that student shielding the student from criticism,” the brief states. “All members of a university community (including professors) have routinely commented on student speech of this nature.”
Here’s the problem: University administration doesn’t see Abbate’s comments and speech prohibitions against her student as “plausibly” bigoted. It’s the student who has a different idea about gay marriage, and McAdams who defended him in his blog, who Abbate and the university effectively deem as intolerant.
Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, also filed a brief in support of academic freedom.
“The state’s university system, with over 175,000 students and 39,000 faculty, has a longstanding tradition of support for academic freedom,” Schimel said in a statement. “The State of Wisconsin has a direct interest in the outcome of this case and any academic-speech framework the State Supreme Court may adopt as the result.”
As the attorney general noted, Marquette is a private institution that has “chosen to afford First Amendment rights to its faculty.”
“The university’s interests as an employer do not outweigh Professor McAdams’ First Amendment rights,” Schimel said.
McAdams has long claimed he is being treated differently because he is a conservative – and an outspoken one at that – on a liberal private school campus.
Marquette attorney, Ralph Weber, told the Washington Times that the university’s move to strip McAdams of his tenure has nothing to do with his conservative ideas.
“Had he written the exact same blog post and not included the student-teacher’s name and contact information he would not have been disciplined,” the attorney said. “He’s being disciplined for his conduct, not any viewpoint.”
But McAdams believes an internal document, a Dec. 9, 2014 email from Marquette Philosophy professor Nancy Snow betrays administration’s long-held desire to get rid of McAdams, a persistent thorn in their side. In the email, Snow demands McAdams and Cindy Bauer, Marquette vice president and general counsel, be fired.
Bauer’s “past refusals to shut him (McAdams) down enabled him to continue his abuses unabated for so many years,” Snow wrote to Lovell. “Due to Ms. Bauer, Marquette has failed in its institutional response and allowed a bully to threaten and intimidate any number of people.”
McAdams said Snow’s email suggests his blog post about Abbate gave administration the pretext they needed to finally push him out after apparent previous attempts.
“I guess Cindy Bauer knows how to read (employment) contracts,” McAdams said.
Coincidentally, a professor on the same email chain responded to Richard Holz, Marquette’s Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, that he resented Snow’s implication that McAdams had threatened any of the senior faculty noted in Snow’s expression of outrage.
“Indeed, I’ve always felt much more annoyed by Nancy than anything McAdams said, and I’ve seen her intimidate and belittle her colleagues more than McAdams has ever done,” wrote Philosophy Professor James South.
The nationally watched academic freedom case has made McAdams a hero to many conservatives, who see the lawsuit as a key battle in the campus war on right-of-center speech. They see him as a First Amendment freedom fighter.
But the political science professor, who began his distinguished career at Marquette in 1977, said such phrasing sounds pretentious to him.
“Let’s just say I’m kind of stubborn and I don’t want to cave in to this sort of thing from Marquette,” McAdams said. “It’s not so much a cause as it is the fact that I’m a person who believes I have a right to do what I want.”
And what he wants to do more than anything is to get back to the vocation he loves.
“At the end of the day, I just want to get back to the classroom,” McAdams said. “Being a professor is one of those occupations that most people who do it would do a lot of it for free … We’re a self-selective group who likes to teach.”