When judicial deference becomes dereliction of duty

WASHINGTON — Wisconsin’s Supreme Court can soon right a flagrant wrong stemming from events set in motion in 2014 at Milwaukee’s Marquette University by Cheryl Abbate. Although just a graduate student, she already had a precocious aptitude for academic nastiness.

On Oct. 28, in an undergraduate course she was teaching on ethics, when the subject of same-sex marriage arose there was no debate because, a student said, Abbate insisted there could be no defensible opposition to this. (Marquette is a Jesuit school.) After class, the student told her he opposed same-sex marriage and her discouraging of debate about it. She replied (he recorded their interaction) “there are some opinions that are not appropriate that are harmful … do you know whether anyone in the class is homosexual? … in this class homophobic comments … will not be tolerated.” The student’s appeals to Abbate’s superiors were unavailing (the chairman of her philosophy department referred to the student as an “insulin (sic) little twerp” so he gave John C. McAdams his recording of Abbate rebuffing him.

McAdams, a tenured professor then in his 41st year at Marquette and a conservative who blogs about the school’s news, emailed Abbate seeking her version of the episode. Without responding to him, she immediately forwarded his email to some professors. She has called McAdams “the ringleader” of “extreme white (sic) wing, hateful people,” a “moron,” “a flaming bigot, sexist and homophobic idiot” and a “creepy homophobic person with bad argumentation skills.” This aspiring philosopher’s argumentation skills can be inferred from her reliance on epithets.

Before McAdams had written a syllable, she claimed for herself the coveted status of victim, branding as “harassment” his request for her side of the story. Striking a pose of bravery, she accused him of trying “to scare me into silence.” When, on Nov. 9, McAdams blogged, his post took no position on same-sex marriage but said this should be a debatable issue. The next day, Abbate drafted a letter asking that McAdams be disciplined. He was.

After this matter earned national media attention, she received some critical emails, some of them vile, and Marquette rightly branded them “hate mail.” However, for these, and for the unspecified “harm” that they supposedly caused Abbate, McAdams was held to be somehow blameworthy. Marquette, however, offered no evidence he had anything to do with the emails.

After a committee drawn from the university’s monochrome culture recommended suspending McAdams without pay for two semesters, Marquette’s president insisted that McAdams also express in writing “deep regret” and confess his blog post was “reckless and incompatible” with Marquette’s mission and values. McAdams refused and has been unemployed ever since.

Being a private institution, Marquette had a right to be as hostile as it obviously is to the First Amendment — except for this: Its contract with tenured faculty says no one shall be disciplined for exercising “legitimate personal or academic freedoms of thought, doctrine, discourse, association, advocacy, or action” and that the threat of dismissal shall not be used to “restrain” constitutional rights. A circuit court, ignoring Marquette’s ignoring of a Wisconsin contract, refused to adjudicate this dispute.

Deferring to Marquette, the court essentially held that a professor’s academic freedom exists only until some other professors, and university administrators, say it does not. So, the deferential court allowed Marquette an unconstrained right to settle a contract dispute in which it was an interested party.

Because there is almost no Wisconsin case law concerning academic freedom that could have guided the circuit court, McAdams is asking the state supreme court to bypass the appeals court and perform its function as the state’s “law-developing court.” He also is asking the court to be cognizant of the cultural context: Nationwide, colleges and universities “are under pressure” — all of it from within the institutions — “to enact or implement speech codes or otherwise restrict speech in various ways.”

This episode, now in its fourth year, began because McAdams tried to assist a student who suffered unprofessional behavior by a bullying instructor. Abbate has moved on. Now at the University of Colorado, she is still a (perhaps career) graduate student, writing a doctoral dissertation on the importance of the rights of … animals.

The wreckage she left in her wake illustrates how rights are imperiled when judicial deference becomes dereliction of judicial duty. Prospective Marquette students, and Marquette alumni, must decide whether this school, awash with the current academic hysteria and corruption, merits their confidence and support. Wisconsin’s Supreme Court must lay down the law that can stop some of the rot that this case illustrates.

George Will’s syndicated column appears Thursdays and Sundays in the Tribune-Herald. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com.