A case involving a former Marquette University professor asks the Wisconsin Supreme Court to determine the limits of free speech at private universities.
Justices heard oral arguments Thursday in the case between Marquette University and former political science professor John McAdams.
The dispute has received widespread media attention and even led to the university taking out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal calling out McAdams.
He was indefinitely suspended in 2015 after criticizing a graduate student instructor in a blog post for her decision not to allow debate on gay marriage due to it potentially offending some students.
That decision was affirmed by both a university faculty committee and a lower court.
At the hearing Thursday, attorney for Marquette University, Ralph Weber, argued the university’s actions were warranted, because its faculty committee, after investigating the matter, found McAdams to have violated the terms of his contract, which allows termination if a professor fails to maintain certain standards of professional conduct.
Since the graduate instructor who was the target of McAdams blog post received threatening messages online after he made his post, the university committee and administration chose to suspend him.
But McAdams’ attorney Richard Esenberg, who is also a law professor at the university, maintained Marquette, by dismissing McAdams, has violated the terms of his contract, which prevents the university from using dismissal as a means to curtail academic freedom.
McAdams appealed, but the lower court deferred to the faculty hearing committee’s decision.
The resolution of a contract dispute — what some justices on the court consider this case to be — by a university committee troubled some of the justices, such as conservative Daniel Kelly.
Kelly questioned why any court should defer to the faculty committee when there is no explicit language in McAdams’ contract naming the committee as the final arbiter of such disputes.
He also pointed out what he saw as a grievance process that favors the university’s administration.
“We’re told we’re to defer to administration’s decision. We’re told McAdams is bound by the conclusions of that report. But the president, who changed recommendations and added conditions, he’s not bound by it. Why is it that we would defer to a tribunal that binds one party and not the other?” Kelly questioned.
In his response, Weber underscored the grievance procedure was created by faculty to determine how to resolve issues of academic freedom and professional practice.
A significant line of the court’s questioning revolved around the extent to which protections for academic freedom apply at private institutions.
Chief Justice Patience Roggensack questioned counsel of both the plaintiff and defendant as to whether they believe the scope of First Amendment rights is the same at both public and private institutions.
McAdams’ attorney, Esenberg, argued it was in terms of employee termination, because Marquette University had included the provision in its contract and dismissal procedures.
Weber, Marquette University’s attorney, maintained the university is not under the same First Amendment obligations as public institutions.
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley appeared to doubt why Marquette, a private institution, should honor free speech protections, given the First Amendment guarantees the U.S. government should not impede speech and says nothing of private institutions doing so.