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Victory for Free Speech: UNC Wilmington Professor Wins in Court

By March 21, 2014

University of North Carolina Wilmington Professor Mike Adams won a significant victory for free speech in federal court yesterday when a jury found that UNC Wilmington had retaliated against him in violation of his First Amendment rights.

As my colleague Will Creeley wrote Monday, Adams’ case started way back in 2007 when he first filed suit with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), alleging that UNC Wilmington denied him a promotion because of his expression of conservative views. While most FIRE cases rely on law already conclusively established by the Supreme Court and other lower courts, Adams’ win came only after a critical decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (PDF) to protect speech under circumstances that were contemplated, but not definitively ruled upon, by the Supreme Court. In Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006), the Court held that public employees may be punished for “speech made pursuant to the employee’s official duties.” It noted, however, that because of the “important ramifications for academic freedom,” the holding of Garcetti might not apply in cases involving “speech related to scholarship or teaching.” This reservation of the holding in Garcetti was key in Adams’ case, since the trial court found his speech was made pursuant to his job duties.

FIRE joined the American Association of University Professors and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in filing an amici curiae (“friends of the court”) brief asking the Fourth Circuit to find Garcetti inapplicable to Adams’ speech, and the Fourth Circuit did just that. Torch readers may recall a similarly important ruling in the Ninth Circuit case of Demers v. Austin (PDF), which we reported on in September. The two cases are the latest in a legal trend towards greater protection of faculty speech, and professors in 14 states are affected by the rulings.

With this question of law decided by the Fourth Circuit, Adams finally headed back to trial this week to have a jury determine whether he was denied a promotion because of his constitutionally protected speech. The jury found that UNC Wilmington disregarded its own guidelines for granting promotions and further attempted to obstruct Adams’ progress by sharing false and misleading information about him.

ADF attorney Travis Barham, Adams’ counsel, commented to Campus Reform about the outcome:

This is an incredibly important victory for the First Amendment. To be able to speak freely without retaliation is a principle that should be a reality on campus and the jurors reassured that.

According to Campus Reform, Adams himself said that he was “unbelievably thrilled” about the verdict—and FIRE is too. Indeed, Adams’ victory in federal court is a significant win for faculty speech rights.

Schools: University of North Carolina – Wilmington Cases: University of North Carolina – Wilmington: Professor Files Lawsuit Alleging Retaliation for Political Columns