MacIver News Service | March 6, 2018
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – Embattled Marquette University political science Professor John McAdams is getting some backing in his freedom fight from a prominent national network of scholars and citizens.
The National Association of Scholars has filed an amicus – or friend of the court – brief in McAdams’ lawsuit against Marquette, a nationally watched academic freedom case.
McAdams sued the Catholic university after administration effectively fired him for blogging on his personal site about a graduate student instructor who forbade a student in her Theory of Ethics class from discussing his opposition to same-sex marriage. The student teacher, Cheryl Abbate, told the student that doing so would be homophobic and offensive.
The legal battle, ongoing since November 2014, is now before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
In its brief, the Association of Scholars argues that McAdams in his “civil, factually accurate blog post” had a right to criticize the graduate student instructor even if she, too, was a student.
“ … (I)t has long been accepted that when a student has openly engaged in speech that might plausibly be viewed as bigoted, there is no ‘safe space’ for that student shielding the student from criticism,” the brief states. “All members of a university community (including professors) have routinely commented on student speech of this nature.”
Here’s the problem: University administration doesn’t see Abbate’s comments and speech prohibitions against her student as “plausibly” bigoted. It’s the student who has a different idea about gay marriage, and McAdams who defended him in his blog, who Abbate and the university effectively deem as intolerant.
McAdams, according to the university, was wrong to call the student teacher out in a public way. She was, after all, a graduate student at the time and should be protected from such criticism by a faculty member, Marquette administration argues. Abbate received hostile communications from critics after McAdams posted his blog, administrators have said. So the political science professor was indefinitely suspended without pay after refusing to apologize for using the academic freedom he is granted in his tenure contract with the private school.
Marquette emphasizes that Abbate, who has since left the institution, was a “female graduate student” who was “named” by McAdams in a blog post that was “drafted in a way to hold her up for public contempt.” In doing so, the administration insists, McAdams “clearly violate(d) the professional norms of academia.”
Not so, argues the Scholars in their brief.
Abbate in a professional communication apparently was amused that “everyone seems to think I was just the TA (teacher’s assistant) for the class,” according to a footnote in the court brief.
“Abbate had finished all her own coursework and had total authority over teaching this course, which se had taught several times,” the brief states. “So to classify her as a ‘student’ appears to be little more than a tactical move.”
Regardless, the Scholars write, there is a long tradition of university professors and administrators holding up students to public contempt for allegedly bigoted speech activities, “when they speak out publicly and when they speak privately but are later ‘outed’ by fellow students.”
The amicus brief notes an incident last year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A Hispanic student, Daniel Dropik, published several blogs on his concerns about the university’s new “hate/bias” reporting system. He worried the initiative could create a campus of tattle-tales and, ultimately, curtail free and open speech.
College Fix reported that UW administrators had repeatedly denied Dropik permission put up satirical flyers mocking the “hate/bias” reporting system.
Later, Dropik announced plans to form a student group to guard against anti-white abuse from the UW initiative. He was universally blasted on campus.
“With no mention that Dropik was an Hispanic student, or that school officials had blocked his effort to publicize his concerns through flyers, the UW Chancellor (Rebecca Blank) issued a press release vilifying Dropik as some kind of white-supremacist hate-group leader, and stating that she was ‘heartened’ that so many students had stated ‘their strong disagreement’ with Dropik,” the association’s brief states.
In her press statement, Blank reported what previously was unknown to most at the time: That Dropik had served time in a federal prison for race-related arsons.
The association’s court brief notes several other instances when universities held students up to public contempt for speech viewed as bigoted, including a California student journalist – who in 1987 was suspended from his position for editorializing against officials at another college who had suspended a student editor for criticizing affirmative action.
In another case, a Washington State college suspended a student editor on what the Association of Scholars refers to as a “bigotry-in-action” theory.
“The student’s offense? A ‘lack of coverage’ of ethnic and minority issues,” the brief states.
In making their arguments in support of the conservative McAdams’ right to express himself, the Scholars note the leftism theory of “repressive tolerance,” the idea requiring right-of-center views be repressed.
And they point to the “culture of victimhood” described in “Microaggression and Moral Cultures,” a research report written by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning. The victimhood culture, they assert, is “characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large.”
Marquette suspended and banned the highly respected political science professor from campus and initiated proceedings to revoke his tenure and fire him. As McAdams’ attorney, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, has argued, the process “suffered from serious procedural flaws.”
A faculty hearing committee recommended McAdams be suspended for two semesters. That wasn’t enough for Marquette President Michael Lovell, who suspended McAdams indefinitely without pay unless he issued a written apology.
The Marquette student who complained that his views on same-sex marriage were stifled in class was deemed to be intolerant, so his speech wasn’t tolerated. And Marquette administration has decided it cannot tolerate any criticism of the student teacher and her decision to suppress speech, so McAdams was disciplined and banned from campus.
“Over the past several decades now what you’ve seen is it’s okay if the left acts and does exactly what professor McAdams did, but the moment it comes from a different perspective it’s punished,” said James Troupis, one of two attorneys representing the National Association of Scholars in its brief to the Supreme Court. Troupis also is a former Dane County judge and member of the MacIver Institute’s board of directors.
“You can’t have two separate approaches to the same problem, especially when someone’s livelihood is at stake as is with professor McAdams,” Troupis added.