The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Wednesday that a North Carolina university’s decision to deny a professor a promotion based on religious and political commentary – inspired by his conversion to Christianity from atheism – is unconstitutional.
A three-member panel ruled that University of North Carolina–Wilmington professor Mike Adams’ political activities constitutes protected, private speech and that university officials could be held personally liable for damages should Adams ultimately prevail in the case.
The ruling strikes down a lower court ruling asserting that Adams’ writings could be considered part of his professional duties as a criminology professor at a public university and were therefore not protected by the First Amendment.
The appeals court said in its opinion, “No individual loses his ability to speak as a private citizen by virtue of public employment.”
Adams frequently received accolades from his colleagues after the university hired him as an assistant professor in 1993 and promoted him to associate professor in 1998. In 2000 Adams, a former atheist, became a Christian. After his conversion, Adams began writing a syndicated column addressing issues such as morality, homosexuality and abortion. When he applied for full professorship in 2004, then interim chair of the department Dr. Diane Levy raised concerns about his political activities and recommended that Adams change his writing style.
The following year, the new chair of his department, Dr. Kimberly J. Cook, and a 14-member panel denied Adams’ request for full professorship. He sued university officials in 2006 claiming they violated his religious free speech and equal protection rights after being denied the promotion.
Adams and his attorney, Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel David French, assert that both Levy, an outspoken feminist, and Cook, an atheist, denied the full professorship in retaliation to his faith. By Alliance Defense Fund accounts, Cook described that her ideal candidate for the teaching position would be “a lesbian with spiked hair and a dog collar.”
The university contends that it judged Adams’ conservative writings and speeches as part of his professional qualifications because he submitted them as part of his application for the promotion.
The appeals court found no merit in Adams’ religious discrimination and equal protection claims. However, the judicial panel did find that U.S. District Judge Malcolm J. Howard in Greenville, N.C., erred in ruling that the inclusion of Adams' opinion pieces with his application converted them to government speech and therefore was not entitled to First Amendment protection.
The ruling is a huge win for Adams and French.
“The 4th Circuit’s decision is a ringing vindication of the academic freedom of public university professors,” French stated. “Disagreeing with an accomplished professor’s religious and political views is no grounds for refusing him promotion.”
Adams’ case now goes back to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina for further proceedings to decide whether the professor was the subject of discrimination and retaliation.