John McAdams v. Marquette University, Circuit Court, State of Wisconsin, Case No. 16-CV-003396

The AAUP filed an amicus brief in the Wisconsin Supreme Court in support of Dr. John McAdams, a professor at Marquette University, who seeks to overturn the trial court’s decision to deny his motion for summary judgment. The AAUP amicus brief explains that its policy documents and standards guaranteeing faculty rights of academic freedom and due process must protect faculty (like Dr. McAdams) from discipline when they express controversial views.

The case arose from a blog post written by Dr. McAdams, which criticized the university, other university faculty, and the actions of a graduate student/instructor. The administration proposed terminating Dr. McAdams. The Faculty Hearing Committee found that the opinions expressed by Dr. McAdams were protected by academic freedom, but that parts of the blog post, such as naming the graduate student/instructor, warranted a one to two-semester unpaid suspension, but not termination. Marquette University President Michael Lovell accepted the recommendation of the suspension, but also imposed a penalty, as a condition of Dr. Adams’s reinstatement, requiring Dr. McAdams to write a statement of apology and admission of wrongdoing. Dr. McAdams’s reasonable refusal to do so resulted in his de facto termination without due process or opportunity to contest the administration’s action. Dr. McAdams brought suit and claimed, inter alia, that Marquette violated his due process rights and his right to academic freedom. The trial court granted Marquette’s motion for summary judgment. Dr. McAdams appealed the trial court’s decision and the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed to bypass the Court of Appeals and to hear the case immediately.

On the academic freedom issue, the trial court opined, “In short, academic freedom gives a professor, such as Dr. McAdams, the right to express his view in speeches, writing and on the internet, so long as he does not infringe on the rights of others.” The amicus brief explains that “Such a formulation of limiting academic freedom to ‘views’ that do ‘not infringe on the rights of others’ vastly undermines academic freedom. The nature of offering opinions, particularly controversial ones, is that they may prompt vigorous responses, including assertions that the right of others have been infringed. Views and opinions should be subject to debate, not to limitations based on claims that the expression of views infringes upon the rights of others. Adding such a component will only serve to limit the openness and breadth of the views expressed in academia, compromising essential rights of academic freedom.” The amicus brief urges the Wisconsin Supreme Court to adopt AAUP standards to interpret academic freedom policies, including those at Marquette, as protecting faculty from discipline for extramural speech unless the university administration proves that such speech clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness to serve, taking into account his entire record as a teacher and scholar. As AAUP standards explain, “Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for continuing service.”

The amicus brief also argues that Marquette violated Dr. McAdams’s due process rights by unilaterally imposing a new penalty that required Dr. McAdams to write a statement of apology/admission as a condition of reinstatement. This severe sanction would compel Dr. McAdams to renounce his opinions, a fundamental violation of his academic freedom. It also amounted to a de facto termination that was imposed in contravention of the Faculty Hearing Committee’s recommended lesser penalty.