Free Speech and Ivory Towers

We don't need protections for speech that everyone approves of.

Not falling asleep in this lecture.

Photographer: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

Last fall, John McAdams, a professor at Marquette University, wrote a post on his blog criticizing a graduate student who was teaching a philosophy class at the school. During the class ("Theory of Ethics"), the students were discussing John Rawls and his application to modern political issues. According to one of the students in the class, Cheryl Abbate, the graduate student, basically said that gay rights is a no-brainer that no one could possibly disagree with, so let's move on. After class, the student confronted Abbate and surreptitiously recorded the conversation, which reveals Abbate basically argued that it is inappropriate to raise questions about gay marriage because that's homophobic and it could offend other students. McAdams wrote rather bitingly (and, the university says, somewhat inaccurately) about what had transpired. And now they are moving to revoke his tenure.

Before I go on, I'll pause to note that no one in this situation seems to have behaved very well. In the transcript of the recording, the student comes off as abrasive and arrogant and somewhat obsessed with a fairly tangential point that tripped his personal ideological radar ... you know, like a college student. His graduate instructor, meanwhile, seems not to understand what the free exchange of ideas is for, or why a university classroom might be a good place to have one. Which is strange, because she herself has argued that we should stop medical research on animals and use human prisoners instead -- exactly the sort of far-out-there, insanely offensive idea that the liberal conception of the university is supposed to encourage and protect.

Then there is McAdams, who is right about the free exchange of ideas (you can't discuss gay marriage at a Catholic university? Seriously?). But according to the university, he hauled out the howitzers and went blazing away without, say, asking Abbate for her side of the story, speaking to the departmental chair or otherwise checking into what he was writing. If I called out my Bloomberg View colleagues in this manner ... well, at the very least, I'd expect a stern talking-to. There's an obvious power imbalance between faculty and graduate students, and calling Abbate out in this way, without at least trying to rectify things more privately, is pretty mean.

All that said, the university has, to put it kindly, wildly overreacted. Marquette immediately suspended McAdams and barred him from campus, as if he'd committed a violent felony rather than written a personal blog post. Its letter notifying McAdams of its intention to revoke tenure is long on irrelevant complaints (it seems to assign McAdams personal responsibility for the fact that third parties wrote mean notes to Abbate, in which case I want every left-wing blogger who has ever linked me fired). It is, however, short on specific policies that he violated; it is apparently leaning heavily on this section of the school's conduct code:

Discretionary cause shall include those circumstances, exclusive of absolute cause, which arise from a faculty member's conduct and which clearly and substantially fail to meet the standard of personal and professional excellence which generally characterizes University faculties, but only if through this conduct a faculty member's value will probably be substantially impaired. Examples of conduct that substantially impair the value or utility of a faculty member are: serious instances of illegal, immoral, dishonorable, irresponsible, or incompetent conduct. In no case, however, shall discretionary cause 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.

The university seems not to have read through to the last line. It is trying to fire McAdams precisely because he exercised his academic and personal freedoms of thought, discourse, advocacy and action. I may not entirely approve of the way he exercised them, but that's beside the point -- no, actually, it's exactly the point. We don't need protections for speech that everyone approves of.

Let's recall again what we're talking about: a blog post. That got 53 comments. On his personal blog. Which Marquette has bundled into the same category as sleeping with your students or embezzling department funds. The letter from the university stresses that this is not the first time he has published the name of a student who he disagrees with, but "publishes the names of students he disagrees with" seems a bit of a stretch as a firing offense. Both of the previous cases cited -- a student at the campus newspaper who declined to accept an ad discussing the purported risks of the "morning-after pill" and one who was organizing a campus performance of "The Vagina Monologues" -- hardly seem like confidential information. 

I'm on the record as thinking that tenure should be abolished. But it hasn't been, and as long as it exists, McAdams has rights under that system, which Marquette seems to be violating. Moreover, it's hard to believe that if the offense had been coming from the other side -- if a liberal tenured professor had called out a conservative graduate student because he thought she was giving short shrift to social-justice perspectives -- that professor would now be fighting for his job. It seems more likely that he'd get, well, a stern talking-to.

As the American Interest recently noted, the academy is already under fire from politicians who are beset by budget worries and convinced that America's universities have become propaganda mills where conservative ideas are belittled and ignored. And I can't put it any better than it did: "The future of the academy is already precarious. The least administrators could do is stop making it so easy for people to wave goodbye." Marquette should respect McAdams' rights because it's the right thing to do. But failing that, they should respect his rights because it's the best way to protect their own.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.