(CN) - A criminology professor with the University of North Carolina - Wilmington can sue the school for allegedly refusing to promote him because of his conservative Christian views, the 4th Circuit ruled.
Michael Adams claimed that the school's perception of him took a nosedive after converted to Christianity in 2000. Two years earlier, Adams had been promoted from assistant to associate professor.
After becoming a Christian, Adams began sharing his conservative and religious commentary in books and other publications. He published "Welcome to the Ivory Tower of Babel: Confessions of a Conservative College Professor" and served as a regular contributor to conservative website Townhall.com.
The associate professor referenced his post-conversion accomplishments in his application for promotion to full professor in 2004, and filed suit for religious discrimination when senior faculty concluded that Adams failed to demonstrate sufficient scholarly activity to merit promotion.
A federal judge in Greenville, N.C., threw out Adams' suit, but the 4th Circuit revived Adams' First Amendment claims on Wednesday. The Richmond, Va.-based federal appeals court also affirmed U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard's decision to toss Adams' claims under the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The three-judge panel said Howard made "several fundamental errors" when he ruled that Adams' writings were not protected as part of his application for promotion to the college.
"In effect, the District Court held that Adams' speech in his columns, books, and commentaries, although undoubtedly protected speech when given, was somehow transformed into unprotected speech because [senior faculty] read the same items from a different perspective long after Adams' speech was uttered," Judge Steven Agee wrote for the court.
Howard "cited no precedent" to reach its decision, the 29-page ruling states.
Agee added that the lower court used "illusory" reasoning to conclude that public employers enter a "catch-22" if applicants include controversial materials, becoming vulnerable to free-speech claims whether they refuse to review the materials or review them and then reach an adverse decision.
"This 'bind' is no different than the commonplace consideration of criteria that govern all university employment decisions," Agee wrote. "It does not open the defendants up to an insurmountable dilemma."
The judge concluded that Adams' writings on "academic freedom, civil rights, campus culture, sex, feminism, abortion, homosexuality, religion, and morality ... plainly touched on issues of public, rather than private, concern," and were protected under the First Amendment.
Adams also brought claims for retaliation, but he did not appeal the lower court's dismissal of those claims.
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