SCOWIS arguments this week: Fired MU professor says termination shows anti-conservative bias

MILWAUKEE — A dispute between a conservative professor and the university that fired him is going before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which will hear arguments this week on whether the firing was the result of a provocative blog post or his conduct.

Former Marquette University professor John McAdams sued the private Catholic school in 2016, arguing that he lost his job for exercising his freedom of speech by expressing his disapproval of what he believes was a teacher's attempt to shut down a discussion about opposition to gay marriage.

However, the school has always said that it was not what the professor wrote that led to his firing, but rather his "doxing" of a graduate student instructor in a blog post . Doxing is the practice of publicizing someone's personal identifying information online to subject them to harassment.

"Had he written the exact same blog post and not included the student-teacher's name and contact information he would not have been disciplined," said Ralph Weber, Marquette's attorney. "He's being disciplined for his conduct, not any viewpoint."

McAdams' attorney, Rick Esenberg, said the doxing argument is "fundamentally dishonest" and that all McAdams did was link to publicly available information.

The state Supreme Court will hear arguments Thursday.

The case is significant to conservatives, who see universities as liberal havens that stifle their viewpoints, and to private businesses that want control over how employees can be disciplined.

In the November 2014 blog post, McAdams described an interaction between a conservative student and a graduate student instructor of philosophy. The student claimed the instructor refused to allow discussion about opposition to gay marriage during a class and provided McAdams with a recording he secretly made of a conversation with the teacher after the class.

That formed the basis for McAdams' post, in which he argued that the students' experience was another example of liberals silencing people whose opinions they disagree with or find offensive. The post included the student-teacher's name, a link to her personal website and her email address, and it led to a flood of hateful messages and threats against her. The threats were bad enough that the university posted a security officer outside of her classroom and she noticeably lost weight.

McAdams published his post on his personal website, "Marquette Warrior," which he has used for more than a decade to condemn political correctness and the silencing of ideas that might be hurtful to protected classes, according to his lawsuit against the school.

McAdams stirred up several controversies in his thousands of blog posts over the years and the university went out of its way not to punish him for them, according to a March 2016 report from a faculty committee that recommended a one-year suspension for the tenured professor. The committee noted that McAdams had been advised previously, in 2011, not to mention a student's name on his blog.

"One of the more important obligations that professors have is to take care not to cause harm, directly or indirectly, to members of the university community," wrote the committee, which also criticized McAdams for inaccurately portraying the interaction between the student and instructor.

The graduate student McAdams named in his blog eventually moved to another university, where she had to repeat three semesters and revise her PhD thesis.

McAdams was given the chance to return to work after his suspension, provided he write a letter apologizing for his conduct, acknowledging his post "was reckless and incompatible with the mission and values of Marquette University" and promising to follow to those values in the future. The letter was to be shared confidentially with the student instructor but McAdams refused to write it, saying during a talk radio appearance that he would do so "when hell freezes over."

Esenberg said McAdams didn't write the letter because it would have been admitting he did something wrong and he doesn't think that's the case.

"What Marquette is doing is they're forcing him to make a Soviet-style confession," Esenberg said.

A Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of Marquette before the case went to trial last year, saying the school's disciplinary proceedings were fair and not a violation of McAdams' academic freedom. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority, can affirm the decision, return the case to Milwaukee County for a jury trial or refer it to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. It also could find that Marquette violated the portion of its contract with McAdams guaranteeing academic freedom.

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers have filed briefs in support of Marquette. The Thomas More Society and the National Association of Scholars, both conservative groups, are supporting McAdams, as well as the American Association of University Professors and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which are nonpartisan.