“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”
After almost 4 years outside of the classroom, Marquette Professor John McAdams can return to work.
Friday, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court ruled (4-2 in favor) McAdams was wrongly fired in 2014. On his personal blog, McAdams was critical of a graduate teaching instructor who squashed a debate on gay marriage when a student disagreed with her on the subject.
The graduate teaching instructor was named and the incident recounted on McAdams’ personal blog, which resulted in his firing (indefinite suspension without pay) a few months later.
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.
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 filed an amicus curiae brief in November asking the court to take the case.
Inside Higher Ed has more from the decision:
A lower court had ruled against the professor in his breach of contract suit against Marquette last year, saying McAdams erred in identifying the philosophy student by name when writing about how she handled an in-class discussion that turned to gay marriage, and that the university was within its rights to punish him. But Justice Daniel Kelly wrote in the Supreme Court decision reversing that ruling that while Marquette’s internal dispute resolution process may work well in some instances, it is “not a substitute for [McAdams’s] right to sue” over larger issues.
The case has been closely watched by some faculty members and administrators who back McAdams, and others who support the university.
Kelly said that the “undisputed facts” of the case show that Marquette breached its contract with McAdams when it suspended him for “engaging in activity protected by [his] contract’s guarantee of academic freedom.” Kelly also ordered Marquette to immediately reinstate McAdams with tenure and pay him yet-to-be-determined damages, including back pay.
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote in her dissent that at its core, academic freedom is a “professional principle, not merely a legal construct,” which “embraces the academic freedom of the faculty as well as the academic freedom of the institution.” The majority opinion only looked at academic freedom from McAdams’s perspective, she said.
Moreover, Bradley argued, the majority did not mention key facts surrounding the case, such as that McAdams actively promoted his blog post criticizing the student to news media, including Inside Higher Ed.
Rick Esenberg, McAdams’s attorney at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, said the decision marks “a major day for freedom.” It’s “our sincere hope that Marquette appreciates and learns from this episode and takes care to guard free speech on campus.”
Marquette said in a statement that while it will comply with the terms of the decision, “it was always clear that the professor’s behavior crossed the line. This was affirmed by a seven-member panel of the professor’s peers, and by a Wisconsin Circuit Court judge.”
The case “has never been about academic freedom or a professor’s political views,” Marquette’s statement said. “Had the professor published the same blog without the student-teacher’s name or contact information, he would not have been disciplined. Marquette has been, and always will be, committed to academic freedom.” The university said it will take steps to ensure that such a situation never happens again.
Full decision here:
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. 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, as required by § 307.09 of the University’s Statutes on Faculty Appointment, Promotion and Tenure (the “Faculty Statutes”)….
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