To mock or mentor

There are few sympathetic characters in the landmark lawsuit between Marquette University and a suspended professor that’s heading later this month to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The professor, John McAdams, is suing the university for indefinitely suspending him without pay, allegedly in violation of a contractually binding guarantee of free speech and academic liberty. McAdams, 72, was first suspended after he posted on his blog a graduate student-teacher’s name and contact information, along with a mocking critique of her having allegedly stifled a class discussion of same-sex marriage.

This characterization, much publicized by conservative media and discussed on legal forums, isn’t entirely accurate. Details, the sort revealed in pre-trial discovery, are devilish little things that in this instance tell a larger tale of ideological warfare on today’s college campuses.

The case, which was dismissed by a lower court, has catapulted to the highest court in the state in a legal maneuver that essentially asks the court to “develop and explain” the laws governing academic freedom. This seems a bad enough idea on its face. Ironically, it’s being forced by conservatives, who usually protest the calumny of legislating by legal fiat.

Briefly, McAdams’ blog posting went viral, with a little help from McAdams, who drafted conservative talk radio hosts to help tell his version of the story. As a result, the student-teacher, Cheryl Abbate, received harassing emails and at least one death threat, prompting the university to provide a security detail.

Her alleged offense — blocking the classroom discussion — was, in fact, a confrontation after class that was initiated by a student, “JD,” who was associated with a conservative activist group that encourages students to secretly record liberal professors, according to the Faculty Hearing Committee that recommended suspending McAdams. Apparently, McAdams also encouraged students via his blog to record liberals, according to Marquette President Michael Lovell, with whom I recently spoke by phone.

Before Abbate became suspicious that she was being taped, which JD at first denied, she made several regrettable, nay, preposterous statements — one, that debating same-sex marriage was “homophobic,” and, two, that such a debate might cause gay students to feel uncomfortable. (P.S.: Nowhere is it written that a person shall never feel uncomfortable.)

Besides, this was nowhere near the point.

As Lovell explained to me, the class in question was discussing philosopher John Rawls’ Equal Liberty Principle and whether victimless activities should not be illegal. Abbate was going down a checklist of contemporary issues students had suggested might be applicable, including mandatory seatbelt laws, marijuana smoking, and same-sex marriage.

When, after class, JD objected to the latter, Abbate said the issue was settled — meaning that it fit Rawls’ no-harm-to-others definition and, therefore, was not up for discussion. JD pursued Abbate, apparently as part of a pre-meditated plan to get her “liberalism” on record. JD then took his tape to another faculty member and at least one dean, but went unheeded.

Finally, he went to McAdams and, voila: A hotly contested issue was born.

Abbate, though apparently wronged, isn’t exactly sailing the Good Ship Lollipop. During discovery, she was found to have made several disparaging remarks about McAdams, calling the Harvard Ph.D. a “moron” — and worse. Shouldn’t those charged with teaching our best and brightest demonstrate at least a passing familiarity with civility?

The university’s position is that McAdams’ first responsibility is to the students, even if it means occasionally censoring himself. Thrusting Abbate, then in her mid-20s, onto the stalker’s block for ridicule and potential harm was, thus, an abdication of his professorial role, the university claims.

McAdams, a conservative who identifies himself as a “debunker by temperament,” has insisted that he was merely trying to help a discouraged student (JD) and airing his personal grievance against political correctness run amok. He also has made much ado over Marquette’s alleged demand for a public apology — “when hell freezes over,” he said on Milwaukee’s “Charlie Sykes” radio show.

No public apology was demanded, according to Lovell. The president asked only for a personal letter to him, with McAdams expressing admission, regret and a commitment to future prudence. McAdams interpreted this as tantamount to promising to not think and speak freely. He wants his job back, no strings attached.

So: How does one render a distilled, pristine legal judgment in such a chaotic, ideologically driven mess? At a much earlier point on the timeline, a declaration of “mistakes were made” might have sufficed to resolve the issues and provided an opportunity to explore the matter at a higher level of enlightened debate. For now, alas, the only certainty is that Rawls’ no-harm-to-others principle is NA — non applicable. Too much foul, too much harm.

By Kerry Minor

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