The concept of free speech is easy to defend when the words are agreeable. The test comes when someone expresses views that are unpopular or inflammatory.
At Marquette University in Milwaukee, administrators failed that test as it relates to protecting a professor’s academic freedom. But happily, the Wisconsin Supreme Court corrected the school’s error last week by siding with the professor, John McAdams.
The court said Marquette was wrong to suspend McAdams for criticizing a graduate student instructor by name in a posting on his conservative blog.
Marquette is a private Jesuit university. McAdams, a tenured political science professor, writes a blog called the Marquette Warrior. The post that got him in trouble, written in 2014, told of a student in a philosophy class who tangled with the instructor over gay marriage and gay adoption. “Everybody” favors gay rights, the instructor declared, but one student followed up after class with a dissenting opinion. The instructor deemed that viewpoint intolerant and invited the student to drop the class.
What happened next formed the basis for Marquette’s decision to punish McAdams. Because he identified the instructor in a post that got media attention, the instructor was attacked by others online. A faculty committee recommended that McAdams be suspended for not meeting faculty standards.
As he wrote in his offending post: “How many students, especially in politically correct departments like Philosophy, simply stifle their disagreement, or worse yet get indoctrinated into the views of the instructor, since those are the only ideas allowed, and no alternative views are aired?”
The court said McAdams had a contractual right to express his views. He shouldn’t have been held responsible for the nasty emails sent to the instructor by others. “Just because vile commentary followed the blog post does not mean the blog post instigated or invited the vileness,” the court noted. Marquette argued that it was acting to protect students, not control speech—if the blog post hadn’t identified the instructor, the school would not have punished McAdams.
But that, in a nutshell, is why this case was about freedom of expression. If McAdams had hurt no feelings, aroused no passion, kept things safe by protecting the instructor’s identity, there would have been no controversy.
But McAdams did express himself aggressively, and Marquette had an obligation to defend him. Not because the school liked his blog, but because McAdams had a right to express himself.