In the coming weeks the Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case in which Dr. John McAdams is suing his former employer, Marquette University for wrongful termination. The story began in October 2014 when, Cheryl Abbate, a graduate student teaching a philosophy class on ethics to undergraduates objected to a student making arguments against gay marriage in class. After class, the student told his instructor that he shouldn’t be silenced and was told, according to his account, that he was a homophobe and homophobic comments would not be allowed in class.
The student spoke with several professors about the incident, including McAdams and also contacted news organizations, claiming his speech, based on his Catholic beliefs, was being unfairly censored. Marquette is a Catholic university. In response to the kerfuffle, McAdams penned a blog post, critical of the graduate student instructor, arguing that discussions of gay marriage in class cannot exclude arguments against gay marriage. As it turns out, this incident took place before the Supreme Court had ruled on gay marriage, making arguments on both sides extremely relevant to the class discussion.
The blog post blew up, and as a result, Abbate received threatening and harassing emails from people who objected to her actions. Dr. McAdams also appeared in the media, defending his position. Not long after, McAdams was officially accused of harassment of Abbate on the basis of his criticism; a faculty panel soon found him guilty and imposed a suspension. The panel found that McAdams was responsible for the harassing actions of others who contacted or publicly attacked Abbate.
The suspension wasn’t enough for Marquette’s president, who additionally insisted that McAdams apologize to Abbate in writing. McAdams refused, not only because he did not believe he had anything to apologize for, but because he may have put himself in legal jeopardy had Abbate decided to sue him. McAdams refusal to apologize led to his dismissal from his tenured professorship. He had taught at Marquette for 41 years. Now, he is suing to get his career back.
The Legal Case
The legal case will boil down to how far the Wisconsin Supreme Court is willing to go to interfere with the disciplinary process of a private institution. A lower court has essentially found that Marquette has its own rules, it played by those and the results were fair, without speaking much to the merits of the faculty panel decision. This is Marquette’s argument, that it has a right to control its own investigations and punishments.
Lawyers for McAdams as well as groups such as the National Association of Scholars, and the Thomas More Society, filing amicus briefs disagree. They argue that McAdams’ contract with the University prohibits it from firing him for exercising a constitutional right. According to Section 307-07 of the Marquette faculty statues, “dismissal will not be used to restrain faculty members in their exercise of academic freedom or other rights granted by the United Sates Constitution.”
In addition, they do not believe that the professor can legally be held accountable for the actions of people he did not control, who reacted to his blog post by sending messages to Abbate. Finally, They argue that the circuit court was wrong to deny a new look at the facts of the case, instead simply conceding the facts as found by the faculty panel.
Beyond Legal Questions
The legal case is no slam-dunk. Even with strong evidence that McAdams’ contract protects his academic freedom in this case, courts often give deference to private institutions’ disciplinary processes. But whatever the legal outcome, the incident itself is a horrible example of the increased stifling of free speech at our colleges and universities.
This whole situation started off badly. Of course, you can’t teach a philosophy class on the ethics of gay marriage without presenting arguments against gay marriage. That’s not a philosophy class; it’s a statement of principles, or something. Then it got worse when the undergraduate student was accused of homophobia. But it didn’t reach its awful and censorious peak until McAdams wrote his blog post.
Importantly, the post was not immediately poorly met. According to court filings, one dean told Abbate the day after the post, “[Y]ou come off well. That is, anyone who looks at the blog will see where sanity lies.” Abbate said, “When I saw the blog I was pleasantly surprised.” Pleasant surprise notwithstanding, an official complaint was made and a lawsuit against the university threatened by Abbate. She argued that when McAdams asked her to comment for his blog post, it was an act of harassment. Amazingly, the faculty panel apparently agreed.
The affect on McAdams who lost his job is clear, but also clear is the chilling effect that accepting the underlying claims against McAdams leads to. He is being held responsible not just for his own words, but for the words and actions of anyone who reads his blog. That’s madness. And it sends a clear message, especially, but not only to conservatives in academia that saying anything controversial can get one punished for reactions one can’t control.
Public disagreement is not harassment, especially not in the context of important academic debates. Thomas Olp, of the Thomas More Society says that his organization got involved in the case because it is such a total denial of academic freedom, especially, in this case, from a Catholic school. After all, the initial opinion that the undergraduate student shared; one McAdams didn’t even express agreement with but merely defended as appropriate for class discussion, is shared by the Pope. That the professor’s defense of this student’s right to speech and academic freedom led to his dismissal is simply amazing and absurd.
Cases like these matter, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court has a chance to send a clear message to university administrators, that academic freedom will be defended by the courts. If that doesn’t happen, if the Court finds in favor of Marquette, illiberal voices in the academy that seek to silence all opposition will be even more emboldened than they presently are.
The time is fast coming when we must decide what we want our schools to be. Should they be vibrant and open forums for the debate of ideas? Or, should they be ideologically driven institutions where dissent is punished? The case of Dr. John McAdams will give us some indication of which way we are heading.