By Bill Korach www.thereportcard.org
The sacked professor at Marquette in Milwaukee is John McAdams, who in 2014 wrote a blog post criticizing by name Cheryl Abbate, who taught a course on ethics. Ms. Abbate had told a student he could not express his disagreement with same-sex marriage in her ethics class because it was “homophobic” and on that issue there could be no debate. Ms. Abbate violated a core principal of a university education that is Freedom of Expression. Professor McAdams was right to speak out against Ms. Abbate’s classroom censorship.
In his post on the incident, Mr. McAdams made no judgment on same-sex marriage. But he noted that liberals are inclined to deem views they disagree with as offensive and then use that to shut down debate. The story went national.
Marquette officials took action—against Mr. McAdams. He was blamed for the hate mail that Ms. Abbate received after he named her, even though there’s no evidence he was part of any of it. Marquette President Michael Lovell gave him an ultimatum: apologize or be suspended without pay indefinitely. Mr. McAdams refused to apologize and has been effectively fired.
He’s also suing, and last May a Wisconsin trial court backed the university’s dismissal. But Mr. McAdams has appealed and wants to go straight to the state Supreme Court. The Wisconsin Institute for Liberty and Law, which has taken his case, says the firing violates Mr. McAdams’s contract with Marquette, which promises freedom from threats of dismissal over constitutional rights such as free speech.
As a private institution, Marquette has the right to set its own employment standards and it needn’t abide by the First Amendment. Although a private university is not required to abide by the First Amendment, Freedom of Expression is generally recognized as a core university value. University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, a staunch defender of freedom of expression said:
My own view is that the general environment in higher education with respect to free expression is severely challenged. Free expression is not being maintained as a high value, which comes at great costs to students and faculty. And we’re seeing this play out over and over, at one university after another.
Some of these larger events—disinvitations and the like—are dramatic symptoms of a much deeper problem. There is increasingly a culture of self-censorship on campus, in which students feel unwilling and unable actually to speak and engage freely.
So this is why I felt it was particularly important to be very clear about the University of Chicago’s position on the primacy of free expression, and hopefully to stimulate much more reflection on the part of colleges and universities across the country about how they might get back to reclaiming this fundamental value.
So it is hard to square Mr. McAdams’s dismissal with any reasonable understanding of Marquette’s contract guaranteeing him academic freedom.
These issues shouldn’t be left for courts. But when institutions such as Marquette are unable to handle what should be the normal give and take of debate, they invite that intervention. How much better we’d all be if Marquette would acknowledge its mistake and give the professor his job back.