Marquette professor becomes face of national campus free speech battle

M.D. Kittle
Posted: Feb 06, 2015 9:41 AM
Marquette professor becomes face of national campus free speech battle

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — A respected academician for nearly 40 years, Marquette University’s John McAdams has now taken on the position of freedom fighter in the battle between speech and left-wing political correctness on college campuses.

The embattled political science professor spoke to Wisconsin Reporter Thursday hours after the university began the process to terminate his tenure.

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FIGHTING THE SPEECH POLICE: Professor John Adams faces being fired from his long-time academic post at Marquette University for criticizing a student teacher who opposed opposing views on gay marriage in her philosophy class.

McAdams has been on paid suspension and ordered to stay off campus since November, when the political conservative and frequent critic of Marquette administration criticized in his blog a graduate student teacher who wouldn’t allow a student in her philosophy class to voice his opposition on same-sex marriage.

“If you look at the statement (Marquette President Michael R.) Lovell came out with Wednesday night, he accused me of violating the ‘Catholic values’ at Marquette,” McAdams said. “What is a Catholic value? That you don’t criticize anybody at Marquette? You don’t say anything negative about anything at Marquette? I don’t think those are Catholic values.”

McAdams broke his pending firing on his blogsite, posting a copy of a letter issued to him Richard Holz, dean of the Marquette University College of Arts and Sciences.

The 15-page letter, dated Jan. 30, notes the Jesuit school’s “objectives are understood against the backdrop” of its Catholic mission and vision.

“Because Catholicism at its best seeks to be inclusive, Marquette is open to all who share its mission and seek the truth about God and the world,” Holz writes in his “Dear John,” letter. “Academic freedom is the necessary precondition for that search, and accordingly Marquette welcomes and benefits enormously from the diversity of seekers within our ranks, even as we freely choose and celebrate our own Catholic identity.”

Apparently such academic freedom does not include McAdams’ criticism of Marquette teachers and administration.

“Therefore, in accord with Section 307.03, we are commencing as of this date the procedures for revoking your tenure and dismissing you from the faculty,” Holz states in the letter.

But McAdams has just begun to fight.

His attorney, Rick Esenberg, said this is a foundational moment for Marquette, which is getting national attention for “embarrassing itself.”

Esenberg, president and founder of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, said his firm will file an objection before the faculty committee that will advise Lovell on whether he should proceed with terminating McAdams’ tenure. Esenberg said it is very possible the matter will end up in court.

The controversy isn’t a First Amendment question per se. Private institutions can fire whom they please. But the veteran professor, Esenberg said, is protected by a contract, which in turn protects faculties’ academic freedom — principally speech.

“Their contract says you can’t be terminated for speech that would otherwise be protected by the U.S. Constitution. Marquette has obligated itself, and I think wisely, to academic expression. Now it’s time to live up to that commitment,” Esenberg said.

But Lovell sounds unmoved.

In a statement released to the Marquette community Thursday “in light of media coverage triggered by information Associate Professor John McAdams shared publicly,” the administrator said the university’s decisions are driven by Marquette’s “Guiding Values”and “expectations of conduct toward each other.”

“(They) have nothing to do with academic freedom, freedom of speech or same-sex marriage,” Lovell wrote. “As I noted in my recent Presidential Address, our Guiding Values were drafted with extensive input from our campus community to keep us all accountable and to provide the foundation for a collegial environment based on mutual respect.

The president doesn’t believe McAdams was being collegial when he wrote on his blog that philosophy teaching assistant Cheryl Abbate should have spent more time addressing varying opinions on gay marriage instead of dismissing them as “homophobic” and shutting them down.

Abbate has since left the school to pursue a doctoral degree in philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder.Marquette officials say as a result of McAdams’ “unilateral, dishonorable, and irresponsible decision to publicize” the student teacher’s name, Abbate received a “series of hate-filled and despicable” emails. One such email, according to the university, suggested the teacher had committed “treason and sedition” and should face penalties of “drawing, hanging, beheading, and quartering.”

“Another note, delivered to her campus mailbox, told (Abbate), ‘You must undo the terrible wrong committed when you were born. Your mother failed to make the right choice. You must abort yourself for the glory of inclusiveness and tolerance.’”

In December, a handful of members from the controversial Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, picketed the campus.

Westboro Baptist’s speech is protected. As is the speech of Marquette University professor Daniel Maguire, who has written such potentially offensive books as, “The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions.” Maguire for years has said things that have shocked and offended members of the Catholic community, while teaching at a Jesuit school.

Maguire, coincidentally, has come out in strong vocal support of McAdams’ right to academic freedom.

So has the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, known as FIRE.

“If Marquette can fire a tenured professor for criticizing a fellow teacher on a blog, then tenure at Marquette is worthless, as are freedom of speech and academic freedom,” FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley said in a column posted Thursday. “While this is more than likely just an excuse to get rid of McAdams, the fact that McAdams’s supposed offense was criticizing a teacher for squelching dissenting opinions in class only makes Marquette’s utter contempt for dissenters more obvious.”

Peter Bonilla, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said Marquette’s suspension of McAdams, “without due process,” and the move to fire him, “cuts right into the heart of academic freedom.”

“If this goes through, I think this will be a huge blow for academic freedom,” Bonilla told Wisconsin Reporter.

McAdams remains unapologetic and fixed for the fight. He hasn’t backed down from his criticisms of Marquette. His dispute with the university that has called home since 1977 has arguably become the most important academic fight of his tenure, and it is opening up a national discussion on the limits of free speech.

“This all relates to the rise of political correctness on campuses,” he said. “I think we’ve got to distinguish between old-style liberals and leftists and the politically correct types. Old-style liberals wanted to argue and stand up and make their case. New-style liberals don’t necessarily want to make their case, they simply want to shut people up.”

Wisconsin Reporter’s Courtney Mullen contributed to this story