Wisconsin High Court Rules for Fired Conservative Professor

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – The Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered Marquette University on Friday to reinstate a political-science professor who rankled his colleagues with a blog post criticizing liberal speech policing.

Marquette University professor John McAdams speaks at a May 2, 2016, news conference in Milwaukee. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled on July 6, 2018, that Marquette was wrong to fire the conservative professor who wrote a blog post criticizing a student instructor whom he believed had shut down discussion against gay marriage. McAdams sued the private Catholic school in 2016, arguing that he lost his job for exercising freedom of speech. (Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP, File)

John McAdams faced the Catholic college’s wrath after he posted an entry to his blog, “Marquette Warrior,” about philosophy instructor Cheryl Abbate.

Claiming that Abbate had refused to hear the opinion of a student who was against gay marriage, McAdams said that Abbate “us[-ed] a tactic typical among liberals now.”

Later Marquette’s faculty hearing committee concluded that McAdams should have known that Abbate would face threats over the blog post, and Marquette suspended McAdams indefinitely.

Though the school offered to reinstate McAdams, it put several conditions on his return to the fold, including an admission that the blog post was incompatible with the mission and values of the university.

McAdams declined and instead sued. The professor took his case to the state’s highest court, winning a 4-2 reversal today, after the Milwaukee County Circuit Court sided with Marquette at summary judgment.

“The undisputed facts show that the university breached its contract with Dr. McAdams when it suspended him for engaging in activity protected by the contract’s guarantee of academic freedom,” Justice Daniel Kelly wrote for the majority.

The 63-page lead opinion goes on to say that McAdams’ blog post qualifies as an “extramural comment,” made in a personal, not professional capacity, which is protected by the faculty handbook’s doctrine of academic freedom.

“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,” Kelly wrote.

In a dissent joined by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley meanwhile Justice Shirley Abrahamson skewered the majority for having glossed over relevant background, including the steps McAdams took to promote his blog post to local and national media outlets. Abrahamson also noted that the professor made a habit of threatening to make trouble on his blog for those who disagreed with him.

“McAdams knew what he was doing, and, unfortunately for Abbate, the blog post had its intended effect,” Abrahamson wrote. “The revealing of a student’s contact information for the purpose of holding that student up for public ridicule and harassment is not a protected act of academic freedom.”

Justice Annette Ziegler did not participate.

McAdams was represented in his lawsuit by Richard Esenberg with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. Esenberg did not return a request for comment, nor did Ralph Weber with the firm Gass Weber Mullins.

The school itself meanwhile expressed disdain toward the decision.

“This case has never been about academic freedom or a professor’s political views,” Marquette said in a statement. “Had the professor published the same blog without the student-teacher’s name or contact information, he would not have been disciplined. … By discarding a contractually established disciplinary process when a professor crosses the line, this decision may significantly harm institutions’ ability to establish and enforce standards of conduct.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sided with McAdams in a friend-of-the-court brief last year.

“This ruling rightly demonstrates that when a university promises academic freedom, it is required to deliver,” FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley said in a statement.

FIRE also took issue with a statement from a former president of Marquette, who had argued that faculty members’ academic freedom rights are subject “to the criticism of their peers.

“Administrators cannot simply decide that they do not like the results of certain faculty speech, and then work backwards to find a justification for firing them,” Ari Cohn, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said in a statement. “The court’s decision recognized that allowing a university to do so is incompatible with any meaningful understanding of academic freedom. Colleges and universities across the country that are facing calls to discipline faculty members for their online speech should pay attention to today’s decision.”

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