In 2014, an associate professor of political science at Marquette University, John McAdams, wrote a blog post defending a students' right to question gay marriage. Now, the university is moving to fire the tenured professor. (Fox6 News)

A tenured professor and a legal institute are suing Marquette University, claiming a breach of contract for the suspension imposed after he publicly criticized an instructor for stifling debate in class.

The conflict began in 2014: After a student complained after a philosophy class that he was disappointed that he and others who question gay marriage had not been allowed to express their views during the classroom discussion, the graduate-student instructor told him that opposition to gay marriage was homophobic and offensive and would not be tolerated in her theory of ethics class. John McAdams, an associate professor of political science at Marquette, blogged about it, writing that the instructor “was just using a tactic typical among liberals now. Opinions with which they disagree are not merely wrong, and are not to be argued against on their merits, but are deemed ‘offensive’ and need to be shut up.”

The story went viral, touching as it did on the heated debates over issues such as campus culture, gay rights, academic freedom, whether students should be protected from comments they find offensive or hurtful, and where the lines should be drawn in discussions of charged topics such as race and sexuality to ensure that people don’t feel stigmatized or unsafe. The instructor was targeted on social media by people angered by McAdams’s account of the incident and ultimately left the university.

McAdams was suspended without pay the following month and banned from campus, and in March of this year he was told by university president Michael Lovell he could not return to teaching unless he wrote a letter acknowledging that his behavior had been reckless and incompatible with Marquette values and that he feels deep regret for the harm he did to the instructor.

On Monday, McAdams and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty filed a lawsuit in Milwaukee County Circuit Court, claiming breach of contract.


Downtown skyline of Milwaukee, where Marquette University is located. (iStock)

The case matters because of the importance of academic freedom, said Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel with the institute. “John McAdams wrote about a matter of great public and institutional interest. The question of political correctness on campus and the view that certain points of view are sort of beyond the pale of civil discourse and constitute harassment or are so offensive that they cannot be expressed — it’s a big issue in this country.”

While free speech is grand in the absence of active harm, argues The Post's Christine Emba, sometimes sensitivity is a virtue. (Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)

The university, in a statement, said this is not about freedom of speech, academic freedom or McAdams’s political views but about his conduct toward a graduate student:

Dr. McAdams has been blogging for more than a decade, publishing approximately 3,000 posts, and the university administration has never disciplined him. He has the right to talk about controversial topics on his blog, and to disagree with and debate Marquette-related positions freely. Where Dr. McAdams crossed the line is when he launched a personal attack against a student, subjecting her to threats and hateful messages. Dr. McAdams continues to use the student’s name on his blog, even recently identifying where she is currently studying, leading to more hostile and threatening messages.

A university spokesman also said by email: “We welcome this issue being addressed in court, where the public will hear a comprehensive account of Dr. McAdams’s mistreatment of our former graduate student, rather than the select details he has handpicked to promote his false narrative. Once all the facts are made clear, Marquette fully expects that the decision to suspend him will be upheld.

“Dr. McAdams continues to reject the judgment of his peers on the Faculty Hearing Committee. The committee unanimously concluded that he violated his core obligations as a tenured professor and that he should be suspended.”

He highlighted a line from the faculty report: “The record of this case therefore demonstrates that Dr. McAdams has engaged in a serious instance of irresponsible conduct, and that his conduct is likely to continue to significantly impair his fitness to meet his responsibilities as a university professor unless the University takes punitive action in this proceeding.”

Brian Dorrington, the spokesman, also wrote that the university is deeply concerned that McAdams continues to focus “on our former graduate student. He continues to call her out by name in his blog, and even recently went out of his way to name the university where she is continuing her studies today. These actions have exposed her to additional harassment, more than a year after she left Marquette.

“Our main goal throughout this process has been to ensure that no other Marquette student is ever subjected to an extensive public shaming campaign by a member of our faculty.”

Esenberg said that the university continually refers to the instructor teaching the philosophy class as a student but that she was, as a graduate student, “solely responsible for teaching this class, and they were paying her to do it.” The student who objected went to department heads to complain and “they blew it off,” Esenberg said. “We found emails; behind his back they said he was an insolent twerp, said he was engaged in oppressive discourse.”

“Maybe what he said was offensive, maybe he is an insolent twerp,” Esenberg said. “I don’t know. But this is a matter about which reasonable people can differ. And McAdams talked about it. He was strident and forceful, as is his wont. But this is not beyond the pale of what you would see in normal political discourse between people. And Marquette decided to fire him.”

McAdams did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday. In a news release, he said:

I have spent nearly my entire career at Marquette University. I am proud to be part of the Marquette community and I have used my voice to both defend and criticize the university to ensure it holds to its Catholic traditions.

I think the most overlooked aspect of this matter is that no one in the Marquette Administration has taken seriously the complaint of the undergraduate student who was silenced by the Instructor. I’m saddened that Marquette’s treatment of the undergraduate student at the center of this controversy failed to adhere to its guiding principle of Cura Personalis.

In an opinion piece in the Marquette Wire, student government president Zack Wallace wrote: “Constructive criticism is an important part of my educational development, however, criticism must be done in a respectful way in order for it to be effective. As President Lovell has stated, it is unacceptable for a professor to inflict a ‘personal attack on a student.’ Instead, professors should respectfully provide their insights in a way that contributes positively to a student’s development. In light of this, I stand with Marquette University and our Guiding Values. And, I stand with President Lovell and his call for decency.”

In its report, the Faculty Hearing Committee wrote:

This is a complex case.

It involves a conflict among three freedoms: the freedom of students to express their views in class, the freedom of teachers to interact with their students and manage class discussions without undue interference, and the freedom of professors to criticize their institutions and offer their opinions to the public.

It raises difficult questions of the obligations faculty members owe to their colleagues in a social and media environment where ordinary conversations can be disseminated far from their social and interpersonal context, attracting spiraling abuse from enraged strangers.

It involves a factual record that spans two decades of interpersonal conflicts, a charge that focuses primarily on one spiraling episode, and a challenging debate over the responsibility faculty members may have for significant harm that they only indirectly cause.

It arises in the midst of a heated debate on college campuses and among the broader public over the competing responsibilities faculty, administrators, and students have to protect one another from being excluded from the university community, and also to preserve the university as a forum for free and open debate.

And the stakes are high: an undergraduate believes his views were suppressed, a graduate student has been driven from campus, and a tenured faculty member has been barred from campus and is faced with the loss of his job.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

Here is the notice of suspension from December 2014:

Here is the notice of proceedings to terminate from January 2015:

Here is the letter from the university president to McAdams in March, explaining his decision to suspend him without pay and that his return to teaching in January 2017 is contingent on McAdams writing a letter acknowledging that his blog post was reckless and incompatible with Marquette values and that he feels deep regret for harm to the instructor involved:

Here is the president’s follow-up letter to McAdams in April:

And here is the full report from the Faculty Hearing Committee about this matter: