One year ago, many reeled at the heartbreaking news of Dr. Mike Adams’ sudden passing. Some knew him as a caring professor. Others, including a law school student, enjoyed his pun-filled wit, featured at Townhall. Later, that student had the privilege of witnessing Dr. Adams’ free speech battle firsthand, representing him for 14 years.
Last year, many penned tributes to Dr. Adams (though too many of those tributes seemed to focus more on their authors). But a recent federal court ruling may prove to be the most poignant tribute of all.
When he joined the UNC-Wilmington faculty as a liberal atheist, Dr. Adams was a rising star. That changed abruptly when he became a Christian and began expressing conservative views.
In 2006, he sought promotion, only to learn he flunked every area of evaluation: research, teaching, and scholarship. That was strange. After all, he had published more than the requisite number of scholarly articles. He had received the highest student evaluations in the department and won several teaching awards. And he was the sole member of his department to earn the university-wide service award.
Litigation revealed, though, that his superiors had chastised him for his columns and launched secret investigations against him. When discussing his promotion, his colleagues had repeatedly insulted his writing and his views.
In court, UNCW argued that Dr. Adams’ First Amendment free speech rights did not matter. Administrators invoked the Supreme Court’s Garcetti decision, insisting that any speech within a professor’s “official duties”—even columns written on that professor’s own time—receives no constitutional protection. The implications were enormous: since professors are paid to speak and write, this argument would end free speech for all faculty.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, recognizing this danger, ruled the “official duties” test does not apply “in the academic context of a public university,” particularly with regard to a professor’s teaching or scholarship. Another federal appellate court soon agreed.
After seven years of litigation, a jury ruled for Dr. Adams, and he received his long-overdue promotion. But officials still tried to punish him in other ways. Last year, they latched onto two tweets and threatened to fire him. Again and again, they acted as if the First Amendment did not matter. Their threats led to Dr. Adams’ early retirement and contributed to his tragic passing. Curiously, when another UNCW professor tweeted, “Blow up Republicans,” the First Amendment suddenly mattered. Still, Dr. Adams’ victory continues to have a far-reaching impact.
In 2018, Dr. Nicholas Meriwether, a Shawnee State University philosophy professor, began a similar journey when he answered a male student’s question with, “Yes, sir.” After class, this student demanded that Dr. Meriwether refer to him as a woman, with feminine titles and pronouns. When he did not instantly agree, the student grew belligerent, used profanity, and threatened to get him fired.
Dr. Meriwether offered to use the student’s preferred name, avoiding titles or pronouns for him, and officials agreed. But when the student still complained, administrators demanded that Dr. Meriwether refer to all students based on their gender identities or purge sex-referencing terms from his vocabulary.
Option 1 would require Dr. Meriwether to say something he does not believe: that a person who identifies as the opposite sex really is a member of that sex. Option 2 would stop him from saying what he does believe and create a minefield of potential complaints, investigations, and discipline every time he spoke. In the end, he chose to use the student’s preferred name. For that, he was punished.
In court, Shawnee State argued that the First Amendment did not matter. As at UNCW, officials insisted that Dr. Meriwether’s comments fell within his “official duties,” rendering the First Amendment inapplicable.
The Sixth Circuit rejected this argument, highlighting its dangers for all academics: “[If] professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity. A university president could require a pacifist to declare that war is just, a civil rights icon to condemn the Freedom Riders, a believer to deny the existence of God, or a Soviet émigré to address his students as ‘comrades.’ That cannot be.”
Ultimately, the Sixth Circuit agreed with other federal appellate decisions—and the first it cited was Adams v. Trustees of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Thanks to a recent order, this victory over cancel culture will stand, a fitting tribute to Dr. Adams.
Too often, universities abandon the “agree to disagree” concept for an ideological echo chamber. For years, Dr. Adams stood against this disturbing trend. Now other brave professors, like Dr. Meriwether, are following his example in risking everything—their reputations, their careers, and much more—to defeat cancel culture and to secure freedoms that benefit all faculty. May their tribe increase and their legacy continue to expand.
Travis C. Barham is senior counsel with the Center for Academic Freedom at Alliance Defending Freedom (@Alliance Defends), which represents Dr. Nicholas Meriwether in Meriwether v. Hartop and represented Dr. Mike Adams in Adams v. Trustees of Univ. of N.C.-Wilmington.