Opinion: At Marquette, conservatives got it wrong

WASHINGTON — Free speech won; decency lost.

This has become such a common observation that it hardly merits a headline. But in a Wisconsin Supreme Court case resolved Friday, the plaintiff was that rarest of victors these days — a conservative professor defending his freedom of speech rights against a university.

Sounds delicious, doesn’t it? Too bad a young liberal had to be destroyed in the process.

The case, about which I wrote in April, concerned tenured Marquette University professor John McAdams, 72, who caught wind in 2014 of a 20-something graduate-student instructor, Cheryl Abbate, who allegedly had blocked a classroom discussion about same-sex marriage. He mocked her on his blog — “Marquette Warrior” — and posted her name with a link to her own blog. His tactic worked, if mobilizing virtual speech vigilantes was the objective.

In fact: Abbate didn’t block the discussion but did insist on sticking to the point of the day’s study, which was applying a particular philosophical template to a variety of issues to determine whether, under John Rawls’ rule of equal liberty, certain activities that do not infringe on others’ liberty should be illegal. Same-sex marriage was one of them, as were seatbelt and marijuana use.

When one student wanted to debate the merits of same-sex marriage, Abbate moved on, saying that Rawls’ test had been satisfied. It’s what she said after class that led to what became her nightmare. Speaking with the student, Abbate reportedly said that disagreeing with same-sex marriage would be received as “homophobic.”

This is absurd and would make a fine debate topic, but fine. What she didn’t realize, at least initially, was that the student was recording her.

Maybe the student was earning a badge, or extra credit — or, perhaps, status in the Warrior Kingdom of Sir John McAdams, whose self-appointed role is to stand against liberal dogma under the flag of Political Incorrectness.

One might also guess that a Harvard-educated, tenured professor could use his talents more persuasively than blogging about a woman young enough to be his granddaughter. Alas, no. McAdams blogged. He went on talk radio. And while he was stalking the airwaves, Abbate was reaping the whirlwind.

Suffice to say that many of the postings and emails she received aren’t acceptable for this space, ranging from vicious to vile. Most were also anonymous — one of the plagues of the internet.

Imagine having a professor basically organize a public vendetta against you.

Abbate abandoned her doctoral program, left Marquette and moved to another state. She even dyed her hair. Meanwhile, Adams was suspended indefinitely without pay by Marquette, and he sued for breach of contract.

The court found only that the university had breached its contract with McAdams “for engaging in activity protected by the contract’s guarantee of academic freedom.” The jurists ordered that McAdams be reinstated to his previous, tenured position and called for back pay and damages to be determined. And what about Abbate? What are the damages owed for her attempted exercise of academic freedom — for the public shaming, the threatening emails, and who knows what degree of suffering?

Other institutions, both corporate and educational, that filed amicus briefs in support of Marquette now face similar challenges in drawing the line between individual freedom and acceptable behavior. They can’t feel encouraged by the court’s ruling. But neither should conservatives celebrate this case as a victory for conservatism or as justification for deifying McAdams.

The man is a bully — and, apparently, not a very smart one. By his actions — by trying to stifle and, ultimately, driving away a colleague who held opposing views — he has rendered worthless any future arguments he might deploy in defense of academic freedom and free speech. He clearly cares for neither.

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