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UNC Wilmington Appeals Free Speech Case After Repeated Losses in Court, Hundreds of Thousands of Taxpayers’ Dollars

Outside observers could easily be forgiven for assuming that things were wrapping up in University of North Carolina Wilmington Professor Mike Adams’ lawsuit against the school. As Torch readers will remember, Adams sued his employer for denying him a promotion in part because of political viewpoints he had expressed in columns written for non-university publications. Adams’ case finally went to trial last spring—nearly six years after he originally filed suit—thanks to a critical ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in 2011. Adams won that trial, and last month a federal judge ordered the university to promote Adams and pay him $50,000 in back pay and prejudgment interest. This week, Wilmington TV station WECT reported that UNC Wilmington has been ordered to pay Adams’ attorney’s fees, although a judge still has to review the bill and rule on whether to award the full amount requested—a bill totalling over one million dollars.

But, amazingly, this may not be the end after all: Wilmington news channel WECT reported this week that UNC Wilmington is planning to appeal the jury’s verdict.

Adams spoke with The Daily Caller about his reaction to the news and what the news could mean:

“It was expected that they were at least preparing for [an appeal],” Adams told The Daily Caller. “Star News [a Wilmington newspaper] said don’t appeal. Even the newspapers said this is enough. Even I was still a little bit surprised when they appealed, but this still could be a bluff. It would give the parties more time to reach an agreement or settle. This is just the way it works.”


If they lose the appeal, they could take it to the Supreme Court. “What they’re setting up is if they fail to get another trial to prove that they didn’t violate my First Amendment right, they’ll take it to Supreme Court to prove that they didn’t violate my First Amendment right,” Adams said.

The Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether its holding in Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006) that the First Amendment does not preclude government employers disciplining their employees for speech “pursuant to” their “official duties” may be applied to university professors. As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority in Garcetti:

There is some argument that expression related to academic scholarship or classroom instruction implicates additional constitutional interests that are not fully accounted for by this Court’s customary employee-speech jurisprudence. We need not, and for that reason do not, decide whether the analysis we conduct today would apply in the same manner to a case involving speech related to scholarship or teaching.

Since then, federal appeals courts have been split on the issue of when a professor’s speech is protected under the First Amendment and when it may be the basis for punishment by the professor’s employer, the university. Earlier this year, FIRE and other free speech advocates celebrated a victory in Demers v. Austin, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a speech-protective opinion and modified the opinion a few months later so that it more broadly protects faculty free speech rights. My colleagues and I have explained here on The Torch and in Minding the Campus why the rulings in Demers and Adams are great steps forward for open inquiry and unfettered debate on campus. And even though she disagrees with Adams’ political views, Slate columnist Rebecca Schuman praised the outcome thus far in his case in an article published yesterday and passionately defended Adams’ right to share his political viewpoints without punishment by the university.

It’s not clear how far UNC Wilmington’s misguided appeal will go, but Torch readers should check back for updates on this important case.

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