A win for academic freedom

Colleges and universities, both public and private, have long fashioned themselves as beacons of academic freedom. The place where ideas are to be discussed and debated, and conventional wisdom is challenged and deliberated. A place where various and diverse opinions are welcomed, and the young men and women, who will soon enter the workforce, are better off because of that experience.

Now, back to reality.

That sounds like a wonderful utopia, but we know the unfortunate truth. We know that too often academic freedom is only extended to one side of the political spectrum.

And ideas are not to be debated. Rather, one ideology is to be the truth and everything else is wrong, and usually bigoted, racist, and sexist for good measure.

Conservative speakers are regularly shouted down or shut down. In some instances, we have even seen small riots. And colleges have little appetite for supporting freedom of speech that they don’t like, nor do they care to protect the speakers themselves from the riotous mobs.

After all, if the bulk of the administration, faculty, and student body all think the same way, they see little reason or benefit to accept differing points of view; even as college leaders claim to promote academic freedom.

But a recent state Supreme Court ruling in Wisconsin just might strike a blow for academic freedom in America. Actual academic freedom; not just freedom in name only.

A professor at Marquette University, Dr. John McAdams, was effectively terminated for posting an opinion of a political topic on a blog that differs from the administration. The case is pretty simple. A graduate instructor, Cheryl Abbate, listed gay rights as an issue that “everybody agrees on” and “there is no need to discuss it.”

When a student, at this Catholic university, approached the instructor for debate, she called the student homophobic and said she was “invited to drop the class.” The student told McAdams about the encounter and he then wrote about it on his blog and named the instructor.

After Abbate received hateful messages, the school rallied behind the instructor. McAdams had to go in front of a Faculty Hearing Committee and suspension was recommended. The president of the university then added that McAdams could not be reinstated until he signed a letter saying his blog post was “reckless and incompatible with the mission and values of Marquette University.”

He declined.

That is where the lawsuit began. With the help of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, McAdams won his case as the Supreme Court declared that the decision to fire McAdams violated Marquette’s own promise to protect his academic freedom.

Marquette is a private university. Private enterprises should have broad latitude on employment policies. A religious school, for example, should not be forced to hire a faculty or staff member who is of another faith or is atheist. Just as an employer should be free to require his or her employees to stand when the National Anthem plays.

But a university cannot make up the rules as they go along. Nor can they selectively enforce policies to fit what they do or don’t like. If a university wants to offer its professors academic freedoms, such professors must be allowed to say what is not popular among the administration or faculty.

This ruling represents one professor at one college in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And as the new school year begins, there will certainly be new examples of conservative students or speakers who have had their rights restricted.  But the hope is that in a world where the left has virtually unilateral control, liberty and freedoms may emerge.

And freedom of speech may enjoy a platform on our college campuses, again.

Brett Kittredge

Brett Kittredge is the Director of Marketing and Communications for Mississippi Center for Public Policy.