Marquette University ordered to reinstate professor in a key academic freedom case

In a major victory for academic freedom and free expression on America's campuses, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled that  John McAdams, the Marquette University professor who was fired  for criticizing a graduate student instructor should be fully reinstated.

In its 4-2 ruling, the court said Marquette University had breached its contract, which protects his academic freedom, with McAdams and ordered Marquette to fully  reinstate the tenured professor, with back pay, full benefits and no loss of standing. The high court sent the case back to a lower court that had ruled against McAdams for a determination of damages.

The ruling is expected to have a consequential impact on conservatives' efforts to protect campus free speech that has increasingly been under assault by the left.

McAdamsThe tussle between McAdams and Marquette began when the professor criticized the graduate instructor for refusing to allow any discussion of gay marriage in her ethics class. She told a student who sought the discussion that it would "homophobic," even though the Catholic Church is opposed to gay marriage. McAdams supporters, including myself, found it odd, it not repressible, that opposition to same-sex marriage, which has been restated by Pope Francis, is ruled out-of-bounds at a Jesuit-run Catholic University.

Of course, Marquette president Michael Lovell  was unapologetic in a statement "reaffirming" the school's commitment to the "whole person." He wrote, "We will continue to live as servant leaders with a commitment to the Jesuit tradition and Catholic social teaching for all people, beliefs and faith traditions."

From this, we can assume that Lovell gives not a damn a slice of Catholic teaching should be outlawed at a Catholic university. He and a faculty advisory committee defined the case as not one of McAdams' contractually guaranteed freedom of speech. Rather, they said, McAdams had victimized the graduate teaching assistant because his criticism of her on his blog "invited" nasty emails. In fact, court documents filed by McAdams revealed that the university exaggerated the emails' volume and gravity.

For Marquette, it was a question of whether a private university or, by extension, a private business can discipline its employees because the First Amendment protections apply only to government suppression of free speech. Okay, the court said, we'll focus only on that employment contract and when doing so, concluded that Marquette had violated terms of that contract that included, among other protections, his academic freedom. In other words, his contractural rights weren't subservient to the instructor's bad feelings engendered by nasty emails.

Marquette was so insistent that it could interpret the contract any way it wanted that it challenged McAdams right to challenge his dismissal in court--a stupefying assertion. Marquette should learn a lesson from this sorry, long-running and costly dispute. But even as an alumnus, I doubt it.

Here are my related posts: Here, here and here.

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  • You neglected to state that Wisconsin's Supreme Court is controlled by a Conservative majority. Hence it's decision. McAdams did not come into the court case with"clean hands" which equity demands. His conduct was reprehensible and vicious. He deliberating acted to destroy the student instructor's career. And did it without a scintilla of remorse.

  • "...deliberately acted...

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    The Wisconsin Supreme Court has just ruled that a professor's use of his blog, even when utilized to bully and dox a student and to threaten other faculty members, is protected free speech even at a "private, Catholic, Jesuit university" which is not subject to the Constitution.

    This is an important victory for free speech and academic freedom since it suggests that at all colleges and universities, not just those which are operated by the state, freedom of speech and academic freedom must be fully protected, even for speech which many would consider outrageous because it attacks a student and, according to the university,"intentionally expos[es] her name and contact information to a hostile audience that sent her vile and threatening messages."

    The minority opinion complained that the majority "fails to recognize, much less analyze, the academic freedom of Marquette as a private, Catholic, Jesuit university . . . As a result, it dilutes a private educational institution's autonomy to make its own academic decisions in fulfillment of its unique mission."

    But the high court ordered that political science professor John McAdams be reinstated with "unimpaired rank, tenure, compensation, and benefits"and awarded damages, finding that "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."

    Today's decision is especially noteworthy because the university tried to argue not just that the speech was "bullying" speech which was in fact very harmful and involved a subordinate, but that it violated so-called "professional standards of conduct."

    But this standards-of-conduct defense, which other universities have frequently resorted to, are vague and amorphous and almost never codified, and therefore are often used as all purpose tool for disciplining both faculty and students.

    But, as the court's decision helps establish, even these alleged standards cannot override the right of free speech protected by the Constitution at state colleges, and by contracts involving tenure and academic freedom even at private religious universities which may wish to impose their own very different standards.


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    It's interesting that someone here would call out Prof. McAdams for 'bullying' when that is exactly what the asst. did to the student who wanted to voice his opposition to gay marriage. As I recall she told the student if he didn't like her opinions on the subject he should drop the course because she would not tolerate his opinions.

    Also, with the recent ruling by the DOJ that colleges should no longer use race as a deciding factor in admissions, colleges are up in arms over the decision saying that it will kill diversity on campus. These are the same schools that have no or very few conservative instructors and have black student unions, black dorms, and degrees in black studies. Some diversity.

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