A Marquette Professor Fights for His Speech Rights

Margot Cleveland:

He was fired for comments his contract clearly protects.
‘Written perhaps by the ghost of Orwell.”

That is how Wisconsin supreme-court justice Michael Gableman described the Marquette University Faculty Hearing Committee (FHC) report that led to the 2015 termination of tenured professor John McAdams.

Yesterday the court considered whether Marquette had breached its employment contract with McAdams when it fired him for criticizing, in a blog post, philosophy instructor Cheryl Abbate. Abbate had told a student he could not state his opposition to same-sex marriage in her ethics class because “some opinions are not appropriate.”

After Marquette fired McAdams, he sued the university, arguing that his termination violated Marquette’s promise that it would not “impair the full and free enjoyment of [faculty members’] legitimate personal or academic freedom of thought, doctrine, discourse, association, advocacy or action.” Marquette also assured McAdams and other faculty members 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.” (Marquette is a private college and so is not bound by the First Amendment directly.)

Notwithstanding these broad contractual protections, a lower court threw out McAdams’s lawsuit against the Jesuit university, refusing to second-guess the FHC’s conclusion “that Mr. McAdams violated his core obligations as a tenured professor when he used his blog needlessly and recklessly to harm [Abbate].” And on appeal to the Wisconsin supreme court, Marquette’s attorney, Ralph Weber, maintained that the Milwaukee-based university was well within its rights to fire McAdams and that the court should defer to the FHC’s findings.