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UNC Wilmington Hit With $700,000 Legal Bill for Violating Professor’s Speech Rights

The protracted legal battle between the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNC Wilmington) and professor Mike Adams can be fairly characterized as a series of failures by the university to cut its losses and own up to its mistakes.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled against the university in 2011, holding that the professor’s academic speech was entitled to protection under the First Amendment. Yet the university pressed on. Then, a federal jury rejected the university’s defense that it didn’t deny Adams’ promotion based on the protected activity and found that UNC Wilmington had violated Adams’ rights, after which the federal judge presiding over the trial ordered UNC Wilmington to retroactively promote Adams and awarded him $50,000 in back pay. Astoundingly, the university has since filed notice that it will appeal the jury’s verdict.

If there’s anything that a public university hates more than being branded a constitutional violator in court, it’s being ordered to pay for it. And in that regard, UNC Wilmington’s chickens have certainly come home to roost. On Tuesday, United States Senior District Court Judge Malcolm J. Howard ordered UNC Wilmington to pay the fees and costs for Adams’ attorneys, to the tune of over $700,000. StarNewsOnline reports:

Adams' attorney asked for more than $1 million in legal fees from UNCW, including $400 per hour for five attorneys and $295 per hour for four others.

After consulting with three experts, the court decided a rate of $350 per hour for the five senior attorneys and $225 per hour for the junior attorneys was reasonable. Five others received $90 per hour for work on the case.

UNC Wilmington has not commented on the fee award, but had this to say when Adams and his legal team initially filed their motion seeking fees and costs:

We do not believe it is appropriate to require the taxpayers of North Carolina to underwrite such potentially excessive lawyer fees and costs[.]

FIRE would submit that what is not appropriate is that the university put the taxpayers of North Carolina on the hook for the bill in the first place. If taxpayers are upset about paying the price of UNC Wilmington’s violation of First Amendment rights, they should be upset with the university and its administration for violating the law and stubbornly pressing on at each phase of the lawsuit. Attempting to deflect the blame to Adams, his attorneys, or the court is yet another example of UNC Wilmington’s obtuse refusal to accept responsibility and remedy the wrong it committed.

We will continue to bring Torch readers news on the appeal process as it progresses.

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