Jim Dey | Ousted Marquette professor gets his job back

Jim Dey | Ousted Marquette professor gets his job back

Free speech on college campuses continues to be a source of controversy. But the Wisconsin Supreme Court last week struck a blow for freedom of expression when it ruled that a Marquette University professor effectively fired three years ago is entitled to reinstatement and back pay.

Political science Professor John McAdams, a faculty member since 1987, ran afoul of campus critics in 2014 after he criticized on his web log an instructor/graduate student. His target — Cheryl Abbate — told students the expression of negative opinions about same-sex marriage was out of bounds in the philosophy class she was teaching.

McAdams' effective dismissal was upheld by a trial judge, who ruled the court was required to defer to Marquette's disciplinary process. But the Supreme Court ruled Friday that Marquette violated McAdam's contract, which guaranteed academic freedom.

"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," Justice Daniel Kelly wrote for the court's majority.

The McAdams' case is significant because Marquette, located in Milwaukee, is a private institution that, unlike public institutions such as the University of Illinois, is not bound by constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech.

Nonetheless, the Wisconsin Supreme Court found Marquette's contractual guarantee of academic freedom to faculty members to be sufficient grounds to reverse the university-ordered punishment.

Dr. McAdams, a conservative operating in a sea of campus leftism, was not fired per se. He was suspended by a faculty panel for two semesters. But Marquette President Michael Lovell ordered that, as a condition of reinstatement, he apologize to Abbate.

Since Professor McAdams refused that command, his suspension was the equivalent of a dismissal.

The controversy grew out of a classroom discussion over which Abbate presided.

According to the evidence, Abbate was relating John Rawls' philosophy to current public controversies. She told her students potential examples did not include same-sex marriage because "everyone agrees on this, and there is no need to discuss it."

A dissenting student approached Abbate about her comments after class. Tape-recording the conversation, he challenged Abbate's pronouncement that the topic is unworthy of discussion.

Abbate responded that some opinions are so vile, like opposition to same-sex marriage, as to be un-discussable. She ultimately suggested the student drop her class.

The student complained to the head of the philosophy department, who characterized the student as a "insulin (sic) little twerp," apparently meaning insolent.

The student then complained to McAdams, who wrote about it on his web log and identified Abbate by name.

"Marquette is less and less a real university. And when gay marriage cannot be discussed, certainly not a Catholic university," he wrote.

As a consequence, Abbate was publicly criticized and became the subject of abusive email, for which Professor McAdams was blamed in the ensuing disciplinary process.

He also was immediately suspended and barred from campus.

Marquette expressed its unhappiness over the ruling with an un-attributed statement that said it is "proud we have taken a stand for our students, our values and our Catholic Jesuit mission."

"This case has always been about Associate Professor John McAdams' conduct toward a student teacher. The professor used his blog to mock a student teacher, intentionally exposing her name and contact information to a hostile audience that sent her vile and threatening messages," the statement read.

The court's majority ruling held that Professor McAdams' campus critics got it backwards. Instead of focusing on his actual words, they held him responsible for some people's reaction to it.

"... the University did not identify any aspect of what Dr. McAdams actually wrote to support its charge. Instead, it used third-party responses to the blog post as a proxy for its allegedly contempt-inducing nature. Here again, the university demonstrates that reverse-engineering a conclusion is not the most reliable method of conducting an analysis," the majority opinion stated.

The court's opinion was not a surprise. It took the case on a direct appeal from the circuit court, skipping traditional appellate court review.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazete.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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