Fight Erupts Over University’s Censorship Of Student Speech

January 10, 2015

By Michael F. Haverluck at WND

The censorship of student speech at Marquette University has drawn the attention of several outside organizations, with one legal team demanding the reinstatement of a professor who blogged about an argument in which a teacher allegedly warned a student that any criticism of same-sex “marriage” and its related issues was banned.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, or WILL, has written a letter demanding that the school reinstate professor John McAdams to his tenured position because the university’s suspension over his advocacy for academic freedom violated the school’s own commitment to that cause, as well the professor’s contract.

WILL’s letter noted that because of the extremely narrow confines of freedom of speech on campus, the university itself would be considered guilty of harassment.

“On this narrow view of what can and cannot be said, the statement released by the university on December 17 might itself constitute a ‘harassing’ or ‘disrespectful’ statement,” the group said in its recent letter to university officials.

“The statement connects the investigation of Dr. McAdams to Dr. Lovell’s statement that the university ‘deplores hatred and abuse directed at a member of our community in any format.’ Dr. McAdams’ differing view on the scope of academic freedom can hardly be called an express of hate or abuse. To say otherwise could certainly be characterized as an attack on a member of the university community. Indeed, the university’s suggestion that Dr. McAdams has engaged in some expression of ‘hate or abuse’ is false and defamatory, and has aggravated the injury to him.”

McAdams was suspended from his teaching duties last month for criticizing an ethics instructor at the university in his Nov. 9 blog post, relaying how the instructor told her students that “gay rights” would not be debated in class because the issue was “already settled.”

The instructor, a graduate student, was recorded after class telling a student that voicing opinions opposing same-sex “marriage” would not be tolerated in class because it was “not appropriate” and “would be offensive” to homosexual students, who would consider opposing views “homophobic.”

WILL President Richard Esenberg told WND that Marquette University is guilty of violating its own rules and policies by suspending McAdams and that school officials have no other choice but to rescind the suspension.

“Marquette violated Dr. McAdams’ right to academic freedom as guaranteed to him by contract and the university’s faculty statutes,” Esenberg told WND. “Marquette needs to reinstate Dr. McAdams.”

Esenberg explained to WND exactly what rights are in play in the case.

“It could not, strictly speaking, violate his constitutional rights because it is not a state entity,” Esenberg said about the Catholic university located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “It does, however, guarantee freedom of expression by contract.”

Esenberg stressed that despite the controversial topic, the main point of contention is that Marquette University violated its own policy of promoting educational discourse involving differing points of view.

“Dr. McAdams’ wasn’t really addressing same-sex marriage,” Esenberg added. “He was addressing issues of academic freedom and open discourse.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education notes the hypocrisy of Marquette punishing its faculty for the very principles it says it champions.

“Yet a university that claims that ‘the spirit of inquiry’ and ‘conflicts of ideas’ are ‘essential,’ as Marquette does in official policy, should not be precluding social and political discussion on the theory that one half of the debate is simply too offensive,” said Susan Kruth, program officer for FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “Not everyone shared McAdams’ concern about open discourse, however, and the post was criticized by some as an attack on the ethics instructor.”

The Marquette suspension banishes McAdams from campus, precludes his faculty duties and forbids his interaction with Marquette community members. Yet, Marquette University Dean Richard Holz merely informed the professor that his infraction was still being investigated and enclosed a copy of the school’s harassment policy.

After asking Holz what exactly he was being charged with, McAdams was refused a reply.

In Esenberg’s letter to Marquette University President Michael Lovell, he emphasized the vagueness and lack of procedural integrity Holz used in his letter to McAdams.

“The letter does not state any basis for this action, does not provide Dr. McAdams with any procedure to challenge the action, and violates Dr. McAdams’ rights as a tenured faculty member at Marquette,” Esenberg pointed out.

WILL’s general counsel continued by listing off a number of sections from Marquette’s faculty statutes that school officials were violating in their dealing with McAdams.

“Dean Holz’ letter does not even attempt to comply with these rules,” Esenberg asserted in his letter to Lovell. “It is a Kafkaesque document, telling Dr. McAdams that he is being investigated for some unnamed event that might violate some unidentified requirement of the university to be found somewhere in one of several documents enclosed within the letter. Dean Holz says that the university will proceed according to some unspecified procedure that, again, is possibly to be found somewhere in one of these documents.”

Another flaw in the university’s action against McAdams was its handling of the suspension. Marquette University spokesman Brian Dorrington stated that because the university’s “definition of suspension is without pay,” he was not suspended, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But Esenberg contends in his letter that suspensions with pay and benefits are outlined in the faculty handbook.

“More fundamentally, if Dr. McAdams has not been ‘suspended,’ what has happened to him?” Esenberg asked. “The university now says he is ‘under review’ – a status that does not appear anywhere in the Faculty Statutes. While the university certainly ought to be able to investigate allegations against a faculty member, it would no doubt come as a surprise to tenured faculty that they may have their classes summarily canceled and be banned from campus and from contact with their colleagues without any of the due process that the university has promised them.”

Furthermore, Esenberg attests that Marquette says nothing about the punishment of faculty members for disagreeing with graduate students acting as instructors.

“Nothing in the statutes or any other university policy prohibits a faculty member from publicly disagreeing with a graduate student, much less someone who has been given sole responsibility for a course and authority over every student enrolled in it,” Esenberg argues. “Having accepted that authority and responsibility, the instructor in question chose to express her view on what can and cannot be permitted in academic discourse. In fact, she relied on her authority as a ‘professor of ethics’ in order to do so. That was her right. But Dr. McAdams is free to offer his differing view.”

Dorrington falls on both sides of Esenberg’s contention.

“[A] controversial offensive subject should be allowed by a TA to be discussed in class [and a] professor cannot be relieved of teaching duties for having a viewpoint contrary to the university’s position on a moral issue,” Dorrington stated.

Dorrington first focused on the dynamics of the relationship between faculty and student-instructors.

“We want to emphasize that all of our graduate student teaching assistants are students first,” Dorrington said. “As students, they are learning their craft and it is our expectation that they are mentored and supported by our faculty. The university has clearly outlined rules of conduct, specifically as they relate to the faculty-student relationship.”

The university spokesman then turned the issue into one of discrimination.

“The rules state that behaving in an overtly discourteous, abusive or disrespectful manner toward a student is considered a violation of accepted policy and practice,” Dorrington stated, citing the Employment Handbook’s General Conduct section.

When WND asked Esenberg about the university’s response to WILL’s letter, the general counsel said he received the same treatment McAdams did when he inquired further into the university’s positioning and reasoning.

“The university has not responded in writing,” Esenberg told WND.

But he said the argument really isn’t complicated.

“The issue is academic freedom,” Esenberg told WND. “Marquette put the instructor in charge of a class. She chose to express her views on the nature of academic freedom and the extent to which one could express a certain point of view in an academic setting. This made her views on the scope of academic freedom relevant and Dr. McAdams expressed his differing view.”

Schools: Marquette University