THE WISCONSIN SUPREME COURT STRIKES A BLOW FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM
July 12, 2018 | By David French
Give thanks to the Lord for His righteous judgment that prevailed in this case.
And the heavens declare His righteousness, For God Himself is judge. Selah. (Ps 50:6)
“The Wisconsin Supreme Court sent a powerful message to America’s elite private universities: If you’re going to promise academic freedom, you’d better deliver academic freedom.
In a stinging 63-page ruling, the court held that Marquette University violated its own faculty handbook when it effectively terminated professor John McAdams for writing a blog post criticizing a graduate student instructor’s attempts to silence debate about gay rights in her ethics class.
The facts of the case are relatively simple. In late 2014, a student approached Professor McAdams and told him that his instructor, a graduate student named Cheryl Abbate, had “listed a number of issues on the board” — including “gay rights” — and then said, “Everybody agrees on this, and there is no need to discuss it.”
After class, the student approached the instructor and attempted to engage her in a discussion about gay marriage. After an initially appropriate exchange, the instructor shut down the discussion, saying that “you don’t have a right in this class to make homophobic comments” and “in this class, homophobic comments, racist comments, will not be tolerated.” She then “invited the student to drop the class.”
The student recorded the encounter and played the recording for McAdams. McAdams wrote up the encounter on his blog….
Marquette responded to this incident by rallying behind Abbate and immediately placing McAdams under investigation. It convened a Faculty Hearing Committee (FHC) that featured a member who’d signed a statement condemning McAdams and then laughably claimed that the statement showed no disqualifying bias. After a four-day proceeding, the FHC recommended that the university suspend McAdams for “no less than one and no more than two full semesters.”
The president of the university then suspended McAdams without pay and said that his reinstatement would be contingent upon his signing a letter that — among other things — acknowledged his blog post “was reckless and incompatible with the mission and values of Marquette University.” McAdams refused to sign the letter and thus remained suspended….
The Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected this reasoning, noting that the university could not “excuse its breach of the Contract as an exercise of its academic freedom.” Instead, the analysis was simple: If McAdams’s blog post fit within the scope of protected academic expression, then the university was barred — by the terms of its own faculty handbook — from punishing McAdams for it….
And indeed, McAdams’s post plainly constituted an “extramural comment protected by the doctrine of academic freedom.” Professors have the freedom to make personal comments about political or academic matters without fear of reprisal unless those comments are so egregious that they show the professor is “unfit to serve.” Any other ruling would have dramatically shrunk the bounds of academic freedom and exposed hosts of professors to discipline for their statements on Twitter, in the media, and on personal blogs.
The Wisconsin court’s ruling is obviously binding only in Wisconsin, but the decision was being closely watched by attorneys and universities across the country. It’s a persuasive precedent that will heighten the risk for any university that attempts to replicate Marquette’s mistake….
Conservative students and professors have precious little internal leverage, so they are forced to appeal to courts to vindicate their rights. McAdams was represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty in his case. (Full disclosure: Last year I delivered a paid fundraising speech for WILL). Other plaintiffs in other cases have sought help from groups such as my former colleagues at the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.” (Excerpts from David French article on National Review)