After seven years, the legal battle between the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNC Wilmington) and Professor Mike Adams has finally come to an end. Back in 2007, Adams sued UNC Wilmington, alleging that it retaliated against him for political viewpoints he had expressed in columns written for non-university publications. With a key federal appellate court win in 2011 and a jury verdict in his favor earlier this year, Adams has had an impressive run—and UNC Wilmington is smart to settle with the professor at last.
FIRE’s extensive coverage of the case reflects its importance for faculty free speech rights. As we’ve discussed on The Torch before, federal courts have been split on the question of how far the First Amendment goes in protecting faculty speech since the Supreme Court’s decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006). In Garcetti, the Court held that government employees may be disciplined by their employers for speech “pursuant to” their “official duties.” That ruling contained a reservation that because of the “important ramifications for academic freedom,” the holding might not apply to “speech related to scholarship or teaching.” As my colleague Will Creeley explained in 2011, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit determined that Adams’ speech was not punishable under Garcetti and emphasized that Garcetti should not be used to put professors at risk for their public speech:
Applying Garcetti to the academic work of a public university faculty member under the facts of this case could place beyond the reach of First Amendment protection many forms of public speech or service a professor engaged in during his employment. That would not appear to be what Garcetti intended, nor is it consistent with our long-standing recognition that no individual loses his ability to speak as a private citizen by virtue of public employment.
After the Fourth Circuit’s decision, the case went back to trial, where a jury found that the university did indeed retaliate against Adams for his constitutionally protected political speech. United States Senior District Judge Malcolm J. Howard ordered UNC Wilmington to give Adams back pay, the promotion he alleged was denied on the basis of his speech, and over $700,000 in fees and costs for Adams’ attorneys.
Back in May, we reported that UNC Wilmington was planning to appeal the jury’s verdict. With the university and Adams having reached a settlement agreement, though, the university is finally accepting its fate—and it’s not cheap. Pursuant to the agreement, UNC Wilmington will pay $615,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs, $50,000 in back pay, and an annual salary of $75,000. Additionally, Adams will be allowed to choose two members of his post-tenure peer review committee.
Adams has won not just tens of thousands of dollars but a significant legal victory for university faculty throughout the Fourth Circuit. FIRE commends Adams on his determination to teach his university that it must abide by the First Amendment, which does not allow a public institution to punish a professor for constitutionally protected speech.