Academic freedom took a hit, but comes back to win

Monday, July 9, 2018
Chris Woodward (

college professor teaching classA victory for a conservative professor is a victory for everyone – that's the word from a group that came to the educator's defense in a legal battle that began almost four years ago.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Friday that Marquette University shouldn't have fired a conservative professor over his blog post in November 2014 in which he criticized student instructor Cheryl Abbate for essentially squelching discussion in opposition to "gay marriage." (See earlier storyThe ruling sides with former professor Dr. John McAdams and concludes that the Catholic school breached its contract with him guaranteeing academic freedom. The court said McAdams should immediately be reinstated – and the university says it will comply, albeit with reservations.

"The political leanings of a faculty member are fairly irrelevant in this case, as this could just have easily happened to a left-leaning professor," states attorney Ari Cohn of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) – which filed a "friend of the court" brief in the legal scuffle.


Cohn continues: "What it comes down to is a faculty member's right to criticize an instructor whose pedagogy or whose opinions he might disagree with and not be held responsible simply because other people who agreed with this faculty member's criticisms took it upon themselves to send vile or threatening messages to the instructor."

To put it another way, Cohn says it's a question of basic fairness and academic freedom – and in that sense, he says: "I think the Wisconsin Supreme Court, by and large, got it right."

Cohn argues that this ruling could be used for arguments in similar cases.

"The opinion was very thorough and well written, and to that extent it certainly can serve as an example for others who are fighting for their rights," the attorney explains. "It's a warning to other colleges and universities across the country that private universities that promise academic freedom can't simply just ignore those promises when it feels it's convenient for them to do so."

According to Cohn, a tremendous number of faculty members have been targeted for their online speech over the past year.

"A lot of it has to do with electoral politics and things like that, but you see it come up in various contexts," he says. "But faculty members are increasingly being targeted for their expression – and it is happening left, right, and center."

McAdams was represented in his lawsuit by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. That legal group says the decision "relies on one of the simplest rules of fairness – you cannot punish somebody for violating a rule that did not exist when it was supposedly 'broken.'" WILL added: "What [universities] cannot do is make up rules after the fact to punish a professor they want to get rid of."

Editor's note: Image above does not depict Dr. McAdams.

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