The Wisconsin Supreme Court is considering a case involving academic freedom. Suspended Marquette University Professor John McAdams is arguing that the Jesuit institution is denying him the academic freedom that his contract promised.
Marquette disciplined the political science professor after he posted something on his conservative blog critical of a student teacher. McAdams has been suspended for more than three years, two of them without pay.
His attorney, Rick Esenberg, says the discipline amounts to a serious transgression of academic freedom, and the contract McAdams signed promises faculty academic freedom. He says professors won't be terminated for conduct protected by the US Constitution, which in this case is the right to free speech.
Esenberg, who is the founder and president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, says he believes Marquette should abide by that commitment.
“The case I think is important because it’s an opportunity to affirm what academic freedom means that is that it provides faculty at universities with broad leeway to speak that is not subject to subjective after the fact scrutiny by the administration or their colleagues,” he says.
The issue involves a post McAdams wrote about a teaching assistant in the philosophy department on his conservative blog.
An undergrad in her class had expressed an opinion about gay marriage. The teaching assistant reportedly told the student his views may come off as homophobic and could offend his classmates.
So, she said, the student wouldn't be allowed to share his views in the classroom. McAdams objected to how the teaching assistant handled the matter and blogged about it.
Esenberg says McAdams' post was civil and that he didn't write anything inaccurate, nor did he call for action to be taken against the student teacher.
Yet, Esenberg says, Marquette took action against McAdams and the suspended professor is in danger of losing his job. “If you can be fired for that, then you have no right of academic freedom and you have no right of freedom of speech.”
However, representatives for Marquette tell the story differently.
Ralph Weber, the university’s attorney, says McAdams' post was problematic because it mentioned the name of the teaching assistant with whom McAdams disagreed.
It also linked to information about her, including how people could contact her. Weber says the blog left the teaching assistant open to hateful -- even threatening -- messages. He says Marquette fully endorses academic freedom, including free speech.
But, Weber says, this case is not about that. “Academic freedom is not free speech. Academic freedom is not you get to say whatever you want. Academic freedom means that in the area of teaching, research, and extramural comments, you act in accordance with professional standards. Academic freedom means you comply with your professional obligations."
Many universities and colleges across the country follow academic freedom principles, based on standards set by the American Association of University Professors.
The organization says in legal disputes, it can be "extremely difficult to determine where faculty members’ rights under academic freedom and the First Amendment begin and end."
Risa Lieberwitz is general counsel of the association. She says disputes related to academic freedom and contract enforcement can arise both at public universities, and at private institutions, such as Marquette.
"So you might be in a public university and have somebody suing for breach of contract claim that’s based on academic freedom just as you might see that in a private university. But if you’re in a public university, there’s also the potential for having a First Amendment constitutional right of academic freedom which would be part of rights of free speech under the First Amendment,” Lieberwitz says.
Both sides in the debate over academic freedom at Marquette delivered their arguments before the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday.
Suspended professor John McAdams hopes the justices determine he should be reinstated at Marquette.
The court is expected to make a decision in July.