Academic Freedom and Employee Speech

Jensen v. Brown, No. 23-2545 (9th Cir. 2024)

The AAUP and the Nevada Faculty Alliance filed a joint amicus brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in support of a math professor who faced retaliation from college administrators after he voiced concerns about the lowering of curriculum standards and worsening respect for shared governance.

Pernell v. Lamb, No. 22-13992 (11th Cir. 2023)

On June 23, 2023, the AAUP filed an amicus brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in support of Florida faculty who are challenging the state’s “Stop WOKE” Act. That law, passed in 2022 and formally known as the Individual Freedom Act, prohibits professors at Florida’s public universities from expressing certain disfavored viewpoints while teaching on topics including those involving racial and sexual discrimination and injustice. The AAUP’s brief argues that the law violates the First Amendment and threatens to destroy academic freedom, sabotage higher education, and undermine democracy.

McAdams v. Marquette University, 383 Wisc. 2d 358, 914 N.W.2d 708 (2018)

In one of the best decisions on academic freedom in decades, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, citing AAUP policies and an amicus brief filed by the AAUP, ruled that Marquette University wrongly disciplined Dr. John McAdams for comments he made on his personal blog in 2014. Dr. McAdams criticized a graduate teaching instructor by name for her refusal to allow a student to debate gay rights because "everybody agrees on this." The blog was publicized in the national press, and the instructor received numerous harassing communications from third parties.  Marquette suspended Dr. McAdams, and demanded an apology as a condition of reinstatement. Relying heavily on AAUP’s standards and principles on academic freedom, as detailed in AAUP’s amicus brief, the court held 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." Therefore, the court reversed and remanded this case with instructions that the lower court enter judgment in favor of Dr. McAdams and determine damages, and it ordered Marquette to immediately reinstate Dr. McAdams with unimpaired rank, tenure, compensation, and benefits.

Demers v. Austin, 746 F.3d 402 (9th Cir. Wash. Jan. 29, 2014)

In this important decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reinforced the First Amendment protections for academic speech by faculty members.  Adopting an approach advanced in AAUP’s amicus brief, the court emphasized the seminal importance of academic speech. Accordingly, the court concluded that the Garcetti analysis did not apply to "speech related to scholarship or teaching,” and therefore the First Amendment could protect this speech even when undertaken "pursuant to the official duties" of a teacher and professor.

Capeheart v. Terrell, 695 F.3d 681 (7th Cir. 2012)

The AAUP has filed an amicus brief (.pdf) in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in support of Loretta Capeheart, a tenured professor at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU). Professor Capeheart sued NEIU after the provost disregarded a faculty vote electing Capeheart chair of the Justice Studies Department. Capeheart alleges that the provost refused to appoint her to the position in retaliation for her advocating on behalf of two students who were arrested by campus police while protesting CIA recruiters at the university’s job fair. Capeheart further claims that she was retaliated against because she made statements at a campus event, featuring the provost, blaming excessive administrative spending for budget problems that she claimed led to a low number of Latino faculty. In her lawsuit, Capeheart argues that the provost’s decision is in retaliation for this advocacy and speech and, therefore, NEIU has violated her First Amendment speech rights.

Adams v. University of North Carolina–Wilmington, 640 F.3d 550 (4th Cir. 2011)

Tenured Professor Michael Adams sued the University of North Carolina-Wilmington after he was denied a promotion, alleging this denial was retaliation for his political speech and his speech criticizing the school.  The AAUP, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education filed an amicus brief in the Fourth Circuit supporting Professor Adams.

Ward Churchill v. University of Colorado at Boulder, 293 P.3d16 (61. App. 2010) aff'd 285 P.3d 986 (Col. 2012)

In a jury trial in the Colorado District Court in Denver, a jury found that Churchill’s protected speech – his controversial writings about September 11 – was a substantial or motivating factor for the Board of Regents’ decision to discharge him from his tenured position. The district judge overturned the jury’s verdict and ruled in favor of the Regents as a matter of law.  On February 18, 2010, the AAUP joined the ACLU and the National Coalition Against Censorship in filing an amicus brief in support of the appeal by Professor Ward Churchill to the Colorado State Court of Appeals. 

Hong v. Grant, 403 Fed.Appx. 236 (9th Cir. 2010)

Juan Hong, a tenured professor at University of California-Irvine, criticized a number of decisions about hiring, promotions, and staffing at the school of engineering and was later denied a merit raise.  The Ninth Circuit Court affirmed a federal district court decision that rejected a faculty member’s First Amendment retaliation claim against his administration by applying Garcetti in a university context

Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006)

The United States Supreme Court ruled that a public employee does not receive First Amendment protection when speech is made pursuant to his or her official duties.  The AAUP and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression submitted a brief that opposed the official duties standard, but also made a separate claim cautioning the troubling implications for academic speech at public institutions. Fortunately, the Court refrained from applying their analysis to academic speech, noting that “there is some argument that expression related to academic scholarship or classroom instruction implicates additional constitutional interests that are not fully accounted for by this Court’s customary employee-speech jurisprudence.”