Higher Education is Under Threat, But the Wisconsin Supreme Court Has a Chance to Take a Stand

When last we wrote about Professor John McAdams, he had been summarily dismissed from the University of Marquette for criticizing a graduate teaching assistant’s refusal to allow for debate around the issue of same-sex marriage.

The incident involved Cheryl Abatte, who was leading a class called the Theory of Ethics, was lecturing on the topic of John Rawls’ Equal Liberty Principle. According to the administration’s version of events, another student offered an example of gay marriage as something that would not violate Rawls’ principle because it would not restrict the liberty of others. Abatte apparently responded that there could be no defensible opposition this, a position that one of her students took offense to and approached her after class to discuss.

Things started out exactly as they should on a college campus – Abbate and the student traded opinions, debated fact patterns and offered to exchange research. And then things deteriorated.

The student argued that it was “wrong for the teacher of a class to completely discredit one person’s opinion,” to which Abatte responded that “there are some opinions that are not appropriate, that are harmful.” The student then pressed that he had a right to express his opinion, even if would be offensive to other students. Abatte then told the student that “You don’t have a right in this class, as….especially as an ethics professor, to make homophobic comments, racist comments, sexist comments…”

McAdams expressed dismay at the way Abbate responded to the student, and expressed that opinion on his blog:

Abbate, of course, 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. …

[T]his student is rather outspoken and assertive about his beliefs. That puts him among a small minority of Marquette students. 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?

Professor McAdams was summarily suspended, his Spring classes were cancelled, and he was banned from stepping foot on campus for two semesters. Then, in an odd twist, the university summarily revoked Adams’ tenure and issued him a permanent suspension without pay for failing to apologize to his colleague.

In a shocking blow to free speech and academic freedom, a Milwaukee circuit court judge ruled that Marquette was within its rights to fire McAdams. This fall, McAdam’s appealed the ruling, and took the rare step of asking the Supreme Court of Wisconsin to bypass the appeals court and hear the case directly.

We urge the Wisconsin Supreme Court to heed McAdam’s request. As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education writes:

If a faculty member is not free to criticize, even publicly, the pedagogy of a fellow instructor, or to respond in kind to his or her critics, important institutional dialogues about teaching, scholarship, politics, and more will be deeply chilled. Faculty already report being reluctant to speak out and even to teach about sensitive issues for fear of professional repercussions. …

If allowed to stand, the lower court’s ruling will erode the already tenuous expressive rights of faculty at America’s colleges and universities. By granting administrators judicial cover to discipline dissenting, outspoken, or simply controversial faculty for speaking their minds, letting the lower court’s ruling stand would impoverish higher education.

Our system of higher education is currently under threat from many different forces, most of which march under the banner of political correctness. But there is nothing correct about using  a place of privilege to silence the sincerely held views of a minority. At best such behavior foregoes an opportunity for reasoned debate (i.e. education) and at worst it sets a precedent that will be abused by majorities to gradually erode our rights. The Wisconsin Supreme Court can, and should, plant its flag on the side of academic freedom.