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Victory for free speech at a Catholic university
The National Association of Scholars applauded the decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in favor of Prof. John McAdams, in his dispute w ...
Monday, July 09, 2018
by Martin Barillas

The National Association of Scholars applauded the decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in favor of Prof. John McAdams, in his dispute with Marquette University, a Catholic institution founded by the Jesuit order of priests. McAdams, a tenured political science professor at Marquette, faced indefinite suspension without pay because he publicly criticized a graduate teaching assistant for suppressing dissent during a classroom discussion of same-sex marriage.  

The July 6 decision by the court declared that in suspending McAdams on the basis of an “extramural comment protected by the doctrine of academic freedom,” Marquette University had violated its own policies.

“This is a major victory for academic freedom,” said NAS president Peter Wood.  “Marquette had provided iron-clad guarantees of academic freedom to its faculty members, including McAdams. But Marquette dispensed with these guarantees the moment some faculty members and administrators took umbrage at Professor McAdams’ words. The university invented loopholes in academic freedom for the sole purpose of punishing McAdams. Today’s ruling forcefully and unambiguously vindicates McAdams’ freedom of expression.”

McAdams' troubles began when one of his student advisees complained that philosophy instructor Cheryl Abbate would not allow a student to criticize same-sex marriage in a class she was conducting.  When Abbate brushed aside the student’s complaints, he took his concerns to Professor McAdams, who criticized Abbate on his personal blog.  Marquette promptly suspended McAdams, though it never held a hearing or lodged specific charges against him. The university also canceled his classes and barred McAdams from campus. 

NAS President Wood wrote in support of McAdams in January 2015, at the beginning of the case, and later served as an expert witness on McAdams’ behalf in his suit against Marquette.  In February 2018, NAS submitted a brief amicus curiae to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, in support of McAdams’ appeal.

Wood observed, “Marquette repeatedly changed procedures and pretexts over the course of this dispute. Initially, McAdams was suspended without any due process. Later Marquette created a special faculty committee to make recommendations and staffed the committee with several of McAdams’ known critics. Marquette University President Michael Lovell accepted the committee’s recommendations but added further stipulations that would have compelled McAdams to say things he did not believe to be true. Because McAdams refused to comply with Lovell’s demands, he was effectively dismissed from his tenured position.”

Wood added, “McAdams’ victory in this lawsuit has implications for all faculty members in the state of Wisconsin and may well influence the national debate over efforts by colleges and universities to impede the freedom of faculty members to criticize their own institutions. The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling is a complete vindication of McAdams’ claims. The National Association of Scholars is delighted with this outcome.”

The court ruled that Marquette University must immediately reinstate and pay damages to Prof. McAdams, overturning a lower court’s determination that Marquette was within its rights to suspend McAdams over the incident in 2014. The court split along liberal and conservative lines in the favorable ruling for McAdams. While his case was about a breach of contract, the decision revolved around speech on campus, especially for political and religious conservatives. The decision also broke with a long-standing precedent of courts deferring to colleges and universities on tenured personnel matters. 

Academic freedom “and concomitantly, free speech, is increasingly imperiled in America and within the microcosm of the college campus,” Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley wrote. In her dissent from the majority opinion, Bradley wrote that the case involved an “unprecedented dispute between a university and a professor” in which “academic freedom was put on trial,” She wrote that the case brought into question whether freedom would "succumb to the dominant academic culture of microaggressions, trigger warnings and safe spaces that seeks to silence unpopular speech by deceptively recasting it as violence.” 

In this “battle,”Bradley wrote, “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.” 

Bradley highlighted that academic freedom has two components that include academic freedom of the faculty and academic freedom of the institution. She wrote that Marquette’s “institutional academic freedom is inclusive of four ‘essential freedoms’: ‘to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.’”

Marquette is a private, Catholic, Jesuit institution, which has a right to exercise the above four “essential freedoms” consistent with its guiding values, described by the dissent as the “holistic development of students” and a “commitment to the Jesuit tradition and Catholic social teaching,” Bradley wrote. The university could have hired only faculty members willing to instruct students consistent with the university’s professed Catholic identity, in which it could fire faculty members who do not live up to that commitment. However, Marquette chose not to do so, as is evident from its decision to employ an instructor who so clearly taught in contradiction of Catholic teaching that “everybody agrees” on “gay rights."

In a statement, Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which represented McAdams, wrote that  “across the country, academic freedom is under assault on campuses. Universities are treating academic freedom as the right to say only what administrators or the loudest factions on campus approve of.”  The decision, the group declared, “struck a major blow in favor of free speech, delivering the unequivocal message that ‘academic freedom’ means just that,” the institute said.

Marquette declared that while it will comply with the ruling, a lawyer for the university claimed that the McAdam case was not about academic freedom. Attorney Ralph Weber of Marquette University said that McAdams had engaged in "cyberbullying."

Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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