MILWAUKEE, Wisc. — The Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a professor who was suspended two years ago for publicly criticizing a teaching assistant who forbade a student in her ethics class from speaking against same-sex “marriage” in the classroom.
“We conclude that the university breached the contract by suspending Dr. McAdams for exercising his contractually protected right of academic freedom,” the majority wrote on Friday. “[W]e hold the university to its contractual promise to reinstate Dr. McAdams to the faculty of Marquette University with unimpaired rank, tenure, compensation, and benefits.”
As previously reported, the matter began in 2014 at Marquette University as students in an ethics class were to discuss John Rawl’s ideas on equal liberty and come prepared with possible topics that would correlate. One student, who is only identified as Matt, privately approached the teaching assistant to express his disappointment when she wiped same-sex nuptials off the list of topics, being taboo to discuss.
“Regardless of why I’m against gay marriage, it’s still wrong for the teacher of a class to completely discredit one person’s opinion when they may have different opinions,” he said, secretly recording the encounter.
“Okay, there are some opinions that are not appropriate—that are harmful, such as racist opinions, sexist opinions. And quite honestly, do you know if anyone in the class is homosexual?” the teaching assistant replied. “And do you not think that that would be offensive to them if you were to raise your hand and challenge this?”
“So, because they’re homosexual, I can’t have my opinions,” Matt stated. “And it’s not being offensive towards them, because, I am just having my opinions on a very broad subject.”
“You can have whatever opinions you want, but I will tell you right now in this class, homophobic comments, racist comments, sexist comments, will not be tolerated,” the teaching assistant replied. “If you don’t like it, you’re more than free to drop this class.”
When she realized that Matt had been recording, she ended the conversation. The student advised that he would play the discussion for her superiors, and consequently went to the administrator of Arts and Sciences, who directed him to speak with Dr. Nancy Snow about his concerns.
However, Matt was unaware that Snow was a lesbian. In a voicemail left for another colleague, Snow called Matt an “insolent little twerp.”
Eventually, Matt approached professor John McAdams to express his concern, and McAdams took to his blog, the Marquette Warrior, over the matter, stating that the teaching assistant was “using a tactic typical among liberals” to silence opposing views.
“Opinions with which they disagree are not merely wrong, and are not to be argued against on their merits, but are deemed ‘offensive’ and need to be shut up,” he lamented in his blog post entitled “Marquette Philosophy Instructor: ‘Gay Rights’ Can’t Be Discussed in Class Since Any Disagreement Would Offend Gay Students.”
The matter drew national attention and much controversy from both sides of the issue. The teaching assistant soon transferred to another school over the uproar, and McAdams condemned those who were treating the teacher too harshly, stating that their actions were “deplorable.”
Officials at Marquette University soon suspended McAdams indefinitely without pay because he included the name of the assistant teacher in his writings, as well as other identifiers. The professor consequently filed a legal challenge over the matter, calling his suspension illegal.
Last May, a circuit court judge sided with the university, stating that “Marquette possessed discretionary cause to discipline Dr. McAdams.”
“[T]he use of a graduate student’s name and contact information in Dr. McAdams’ blog post, which resulted in substantial harm to that student, albeit indirectly, was where Dr. McAdams crossed the line,” wrote Judge David Hansher. “The clickable link to her personal website made her easier to attack. The personal attacks on Ms. Abbate caused her to switch schools, abandon her dissertation and repeat many graduate courses.”
“The abusive, vicious and hateful communications sent to Ms. Abbate (by readers) caused her to fear for her safety, suffer negative physical and mental effects, forced her to shut down her email account, hide her contact information, and sabotaged her reputation on public comment boards,” he continued. “As noted by Marquette, Dr. McAdams’ primary purpose was not to defend an undergraduate student, but instead to embarrass an undergraduate student.”
McAdams appealed, and on Friday, in a 4-2 decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the ruling and upheld the professor’s right to free speech.
“Just because vile commentary followed the blog post does not mean the blog post instigated or invited the vileness,” the majority wrote. “The university must identify which part of the blog post is supposed to have been responsible for eliciting the offensive remarks. It did not even attempt to do so. Our review of the blog post reveals that it makes no ad hominem attack on Instructor Abbate, nor does it invite readers to be uncivil to her, either explicitly or implicitly.”
“We conclude that Dr. McAdams’ blog post qualifies as an extramural comment protected by the doctrine of academic freedom,” the court stated. “The post is incapable of clearly demonstrating Dr. McAdams is unfit to serve as a professor because, although the university identified many aspects of the blog post about which it was concerned, it did not identify any particular way in which the blog post violated Dr. McAdams’ responsibilities to the institution’s students.”
It ordered the lower court to enter a judgment in favor of McAdams and to direct the university to reinstate his employment.
“It’s absurd that when you find misconduct in a bureaucracy, you can’t go public with it,” McAdams told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel following the issuance of the ruling. “Fighting a battle against bureaucracy is often much less effective than bringing sunlight to the situation.”
The university, while agreeing to comply with the courts, continues to hold to its position.
“This case has always been about Associate Professor John McAdams’ conduct toward a student teacher. The professor used his personal blog to mock a student teacher, intentionally exposing her name and contact information to a hostile audience that sent her vile and threatening messages,” it said in a statement.