The Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled that Jesuit Marquette University must immediately reinstate a professor who was fired for criticizing a teaching assistant who barred a student from speaking against gay marriage.
Tenured political science professor John McAdams had his academic freedom violated when he was punished for publishing a blog post critical of teaching assistant Cheryl Abbate in 2014, the court ruled Friday.
The blog post was in response to Abbate preventing a student from discussing his opposition to gay marriage in her "Theory of Ethics" class on grounds that opposition to LGBT rights is considered offensive and not tolerated in her class.
"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," Justice Daniel Kelly wrote in the court opinion.
The justices' opinions came down on ideological lines, with the conservative majority siding with McAdams. The majority ruled that the faculty panel responsible for recommending the discipline against McAdams had "unacceptable bias."
Although the court ordered the Catholic school to reinstate McAdams "with unimpaired rank, tenure, compensation and benefits," it remanded his case back to the lower court to determine the damages the school will have to award McAdams and his legal team at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. Because of the university's action, McAdams has not taught a class there for the past seven semesters.
The school initially argued that it took the action against McAdams not because of his criticism of the action but claimed that he violated a harassment policy by specifically naming Abbate in his blog post.
In a statement following the ruling, the school doubled down on that argument.
"This case has always been about associate professor John McAdams' conduct toward a student teacher," a statement from the university reads. "The professor used his personal blog to mock a student teacher, intentionally exposing her name and contact information to a hostile audience that sent her vile and threatening messages."
The school stated that after the blog post, Abbate left the university and caused a "significant setback to her academic career and personal well-being."
"To us, it was always clear that the professor's behavior crossed the line," the statement added. "This was affirmed by a seven-member panel of the professor's peers, and by a Wisconsin Circuit Court judge. However, in light of today's decision, Marquette will work with its faculty to re-examine its policies, with the goal of providing every assurance possible that this never happens again."
Ari Cohn, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said in a statement following the ruling that college administrators cannot "work backwards to find a justification for firing" McAdams and others staff members they disagree with.
"The court's decision recognized that allowing a university to do so is incompatible with any meaningful understanding of academic freedom," Cohn said. "Colleges and universities across the country that are facing calls to discipline faculty members for their online speech should pay attention to today's decision."
FIRE filed an amicus brief to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in support of McAdams last November.
"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," FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley said in a statement. "This ruling rightly demonstrates that when a university promises academic freedom, it is required to deliver."
WILL President Rick Ensberg said in a statement that the court's ruling was a "major blow in favor of free speech."
"Since the beginning, the only thing professor McAdams wanted to do was to teach students without having to compromise his principles," Ensberg said. "Yet Marquette refused to honor its promises of academic freedom and now, thanks to the Supreme Court, he will be able to teach again. Make no mistake about it, this is a major day for freedom. It is our sincere hope that Marquette University appreciates and learns from this episode and takes care to guard free speech on campus."
In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ann Bradley argued that the majority of the court "errs" by conducting "only half of the academic freedom analysis."
"It fails to recognize, much less analyze, the academic freedom of Marquette as a private, Catholic, Jesuit university," Bradley argued. "As a result, it dilutes a private educational institution's autonomy to make its own academic decisions in fulfillment of its unique mission."
In its statement, the university argued that the court's ruling will have an impact on "every institution of higher education in the country."
"The balance of rights and responsibilities of tenured faculty members is a tradition that goes back more than a century. By discarding a contractually established disciplinary process when a professor crosses the line, this decision may significantly harm institutions' ability to establish and enforce standards of conduct," the statement argues. "This is why the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities filed briefs in support of our case."