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Wisconsin Supreme Court: Marquette University wrongly fired professor for opinions on personal blog
- Three and a half years after being fired for critiquing a graduate student’s attempt to silence a student critical of gay marriage, professor John McAdams can return to the classroom
MADISON, Wis., July 6, 2018 — In a win for academic freedom, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled today that Marquette University wrongly fired Professor John McAdams for comments he made on his personal blog in 2014.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education filed a “friend of the court” brief last November urging the court to hear McAdams’ case and reach this result.
McAdams criticized a graduate teaching instructor by name for her refusal to allow a student to debate gay rights because “everybody agrees on this.” Marquette effectively fired McAdams later that year, suspending him indefinitely without pay.
Today, the Wisconsin Supreme Court said Marquette’s decision violated its guarantee of academic freedom to McAdams and ordered his immediate reinstatement.
“The undisputed facts show that the University breached its contract with Dr. McAdams when it suspended him for engaging in activity protected by the contract’s guarantee of academic freedom,” the court wrote. “Therefore, we reverse the circuit court and remand this cause with instructions to enter judgment in favor of Dr. McAdams, conduct further proceedings to determine damages (which shall include back pay), and order the University to immediately reinstate Dr. McAdams with unimpaired rank, tenure, compensation, and benefits.”
McAdams, a professor of political science, wrote on his personal blog, Marquette Warrior, about a recorded interaction in which a graduate student philosophy instructor told her student that his opinions opposing gay marriage “are not appropriate.”
A month later, without presenting him with any formal charges, Marquette suspended McAdams, cancelled his classes, and banned him from campus. The college later insinuated that McAdams violated a harassment policy, and that his punishments stemmed from his naming the instructor in his blog post and linking to her own, publicly available, blog.
“As FIRE has argued since the beginning, Marquette was wrong to fire John McAdams simply for criticizing a graduate student instructor who unilaterally decided that a matter of political interest was no longer up for debate by students,” said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley. “This ruling rightly demonstrates that when a university promises academic freedom, it is required to deliver.”
FIRE wrote to Marquette in 2015, calling on the university to restore McAdams’ standing on campus and arguing that the school “repeatedly ignored its own policies governing faculty speech and due process, and has severely imperiled free speech and academic freedom through its unjust actions.” FIRE also noted that Marquette’s actions were in direct conflict with a statement from former Marquette President Fr. Robert Wild, who, while defending a faculty member facing similar criticism, said that faculty members’ academic freedom rights are subject “to the criticism of their peers.”
“Administrators cannot simply decide that they do not like the results of certain faculty speech, and then work backwards to find a justification for firing them,” said Ari Cohn, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “The court’s decision recognized that allowing a university to do so is incompatible with any meaningful understanding of academic freedom. Colleges and universities across the country that are facing calls to discipline faculty members for their online speech should pay attention to today’s decision.”
The state Supreme Court’s decision overturns the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, which sided with Marquette.
Though Marquette is a private, Roman Catholic institution not bound by the First Amendment, the university promises faculty “the full and free enjoyment of legitimate personal or academic freedoms,” and it explicitly guarantees that “dismissal will not be used to restrain faculty members in their exercise of academic freedom or other rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution.”
McAdams was represented in his lawsuit by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.
Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org