This morning, the Wisconsin Supreme Court sent a powerful message to America’s elite private universities: If you’re going to promise academic freedom, you’d better deliver academic freedom.
In a stinging 63-page ruling, the court held that Marquette University violated its own faculty handbook when it effectively terminated professor John McAdams for writing a blog post criticizing a graduate student instructor’s attempts to silence debate about gay rights in her ethics class.
[Universities] use their academic freedom to make a poetic promise, and then claim that same freedom allows them to go back on their word.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected this reasoning, noting that the university could not “excuse its breach of the Contract as an exercise of its academic freedom.” Instead, the analysis was simple: If McAdams’s blog post fit within the scope of protected academic expression, then the university was barred — by the terms of its own faculty handbook — from punishing McAdams for it. The handbook was crystal clear: “In no case, however, shall discretionary cause [for discipline] be interpreted so as to impair the full and free enjoyment of legitimate personal or academic freedoms of thought, doctrine, discourse, association, advocacy, or action.”
And indeed, McAdams’s post plainly constituted an “extramural comment protected by the doctrine of academic freedom.” Professors have the freedom to make personal comments about political or academic matters without fear of reprisal unless those comments are so egregious that they show the professor is “unfit to serve.” Any other ruling would have dramatically shrunk the bounds of academic freedom and exposed hosts of professors to discipline for their statements on Twitter, in the media, and on personal blogs.