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Conservative Professor Wins Academic Freedom Case in Wisconsin Supreme Court

John McAdams will return to teaching after being suspended for blog post

Marquette University / @marquetteu Facebook

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Friday that Marquette University wrongfully suspended tenured political science professor John McAdams after he criticized a graduate student instructor on his blog.

In 2014, McAdams wrote on his blog that a student instructor was wrong to tell students it was inappropriate to voice disagreement with gay marriage in class, and after Marquette suspended him, McAdams brought suit for breach of contract. The case made it to the state’s highest court, which on Friday ruled 4-2 in McAdams’ favor. The majority determined Marquette violated McAdams’ academic freedom as defined in his contract.

"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 said in the majority opinion.

McAdams’ attorney Rick Esenberg, who is president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, hailed the decision.

"Since the beginning, the only thing Professor McAdams wanted to do was to teach students without having to compromise his principles. Yet Marquette refused to honor its promises of academic freedom and now, thanks to the Supreme Court, he will be able to teach again," Esenberg said. "Make no mistake about it, this is a major day for freedom. It is our sincere hope that Marquette University appreciates and learns from this episode and takes care to guard free speech on campus."

Marquette does not appear to be heeding Esenberg’s call to learn from the case, since it released a statement defending its actions in the name of its "Catholic, Jesuit mission."

"At Marquette University, we are proud that we have taken a stand for our students, our values and our Catholic, Jesuit mission," the statement said. "Marquette will comply with the terms of this decision, and it does not change the university’s commitment to the safety and well-being of our students."

The university decided to suspend McAdams and side with graduate student instructor Cheryl Abbate, who likened opposition to gay marriage to racism and sexism. She told a student not to express an opinion opposing same sex marriage in her ethics class. After McAdams wrote about the interaction on his blog, the university suspended him and argued that his academic freedom did not extend to publicly criticizing students, even if they are engaged in instruction.

A committee of his peers made the decision, determining it right to suspend McAdams without pay for two semesters because in his blog post, he linked to Abbate's contact information. The contact information was posted on a publicly available webpage, but critics of McAdams nevertheless argued it allowed those who disagreed with Abbate to voice their ire. University president Michael Lovell exceeded the suspension recommendation, ordering McAdams apologize or be effectively fired.

The university said in a statement that McAdams was guilty of "exposing" Abbate to a "hostile audience" by mentioning her on his blog.

In that blog, McAdams argued Abbate's actions to smother debate and opposing opinions was undermining the university’s openness and Catholic identity.

"Like the rest of academia, Marquette is less and less a real university," he wrote in 2014. "And when gay marriage cannot be discussed, certainly not a Catholic university."

The Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Milwaukee County Circuit Judge David Hansher’s ruling, who previously found Marquette did not breach contract with McAdams. Hansher wrote that McAdams violated "professional standards" and argued that academic freedom "does not mean a faculty member can harass, threaten, intimidate, ridicule."

McAdams will not return to teaching in the fall because class schedules are already set, but he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he looks forward to beginning work again. He also said he’s working on a book titled Sixty Politically Incorrect Things You Should Know.