Even Jerks Have Academic Freedom. Thank Goodness!

Getting schooled.
May 21 2014 3:28 PM

Free to Be a Jerk

Academic freedom means no professor’s career should suffer because of political beliefs—even if they’re obnoxious.

University of North Carolina–Wilmington professor Mike Adams.
University of North Carolina–Wilmington professor Mike Adams.

Courtesy of Scott Piner/Allied Defense Fund

Mike Adams is a tenured associate professor of criminology at the University of North Carolina–Wilmington. He is also a regular contributor to TownHall.com, and the author of such august tomes as Feminists Say the Darndest Things: A Politically Incorrect Professor Confronts “Womyn” on Campus and Welcome to the Ivory Tower of Babel. He seems to me, in his public writings and attitudes, to be a virulently right-wing jerk.

Rebecca Schuman Rebecca Schuman

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

Mike Adams is also extraordinarily popular among students, and he has many peer-reviewed scholarly publications. Nonetheless, Adams’ application for promotion to full professor in 2006 was allegedly denied on the basis of his public engagement. Despite my distaste for Adams’ dumb ideas about feminism, diversity, and homosexuality, I’m glad that Adams sued the university, and am delighted that last month he won, in an important ruling that (for now) preserves a vestige of academic freedom in this country.  

For although I find his views as repugnant as many found the anti-NRA tweet of University of Kansas professor Don Guth (whose kerfuffle resulted in one of the most restrictive social-media policies in all of academia), Adams’ spirited public engagement should have helped, rather than hindered, his bid. There’s precious little academic freedom left (what with fewer than 20 percent of American professors currently enjoying tenure)—but it sure as hell should include the freedom to be a schmuck.* (An email to Mike Adams seeking comment, and to confirm or deny said schmuckitude, was not returned.)

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Adams’ TownHall bio boasts the classic young-lefty-sees-the-light creation myth—a “light” that shone brightest in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when he responded to a lengthy and pained diatribe emailed to the entire UNCW faculty by student Rosa Fuller. Both emails—full copies of which were provided to me by the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE—are hopped up on the visceral emotion and overblown historical self-importance you might recall from your own communications in the final months of 2001. The student launches into an extended litany of U.S. misdeeds in the Muslim world; Adams responds, “The Constitution protects your speech just as it has protected bigoted, unintelligent, and immature speech for many years.”

The back-and-forth was apparently forwarded to every Fox News–watching uncle in the nation, and a gleefully self-avowed “anti-diversity” celebrity was born. The book deals soon followed, the Web presence grew, and when it came time for Adams to apply for what academics call promotion to capital-F Full, he included his record of public engagement in his portfolio. For when a scholar has—in addition to teaching and publishing the requisite three-audience-member research—dedicated himself (or herself, as Adams would hate me reminding you) to discourse with the public, that can count as intellectual service to the university and community, especially at a nonflagship public institution such as UNCW. Alas, Adams’ committee was, apparently, unimpressed with “service” that included a book with a chapter cheekily titled “Behind Every Successful Man, There’s a Fat Stupid Woman,” and the rest is history.

What is particularly important about this case is that, according to the legal finding, it was the “speech activity” of Adams’ public-engagement material submitted—and not, say, a tweet fired off (too soon?) in his capacity as a private citizen—that prevented Adams’ promotion. This excerpt of the verdict on Eugene Volokh’s blog gets to the heart of why the case matters:

[T]he plaintiff’s speech activity [was] a substantial or motivating factor in the defendants’ decision to not promote the plaintiff, [and] the defendants [would not] have reached the same decision not to promote the plaintiff in the absence of the plaintiff’s speech activity.

I find every sentence Mike Adams writes to be abhorrent. (“The institution [of heterosexual marriage] is good. It tames men. It protects women. It is good for children. Therefore, it is worth promoting.”) But who are we to rule him unworthy of a place in the public discourse, which is all he endeavored to prove by submitting his portfolio?

Indeed, the outcome of Adams v. Trustees of the University of North Carolina–Wilmington is a striking and unexpected victory for academic freedom in its final throes. Greg Lukianoff, the president of FIRE and author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, tells me that the ruling is especially sweet in light of the 2006 Supreme Court case Garcetti v. Ceballos, in which a 5–4 majority opinion (written by Justice Anthony Kennedy) asserted that a public employee’s speech was not protected by the First Amendment if that speech pertained to his or her job.

What troubled free speech advocates—and academic-freedom watchdogs in particular, Lukianoff says—is that Garcetti contained only weak protection of public-university professors, whose every word or idea could be construed as pertaining to their jobs. With Adams v. Trustees, organizations such as FIRE, the American Association of University Professors, and the American Civil Liberties Union are relieved that Garcetti, as Lukianoff says, has been “put back in its place,” setting legal precedent for a narrower circumscription that preserves what’s left of academic freedom—for now.

In fact, the Supreme Court is downright “disconcerted” about the implications of the earlier Garcetti ruling (even Scalia!)—as apparently, and horrifyingly, it can apply to true court testimony under oath, for which an Alabama public official was fired! Thus, it’s possible the court may use the upcoming ruling in the Alabama official’s case, Lane v. Franks, to circumscribe Garcetti further. Now if only any professors ever got tenure again, we’d be set.

As a very tenure-less adjunct, the only—and I mean only—reason that my own frank writing about academia has not gotten me banned from the profession is that I happen to work for a one-in-a-million dean, who, being a self-professed card-carrying member of the ACLU, finds going to the mat for his adjuncts sporting. Instead, today academic freedom is a privilege of the very few, and even that is being eroded. So the Kansas Board of Regents doesn’t like Don Guth shooting from the hip (too soon?) about the NRA? Neither do I. So the UNCW criminology department doesn’t like Mike Adams arguing that all collegiate rape victims be “charged with criminal libel”? Join the very large club. But guess what? Academic freedom is more important than my taste (or yours).

As Lukianoff writes in Unlearning Liberty: “We must learn to take a deep breath when we hear speech that deeply offends us and remember the principles at stake. Both the law and the theory of academic freedom accept that oftentimes a speaker’s entire objective is to be provocative. We must not punish such speech because it is successful in its goal of provoking.” So thank you, Mike Adams! You provoked me. You’re probably a jerk. But I’m glad you won your lawsuit. And today, I peer up from my copy of Gender Trouble and hoist my decaf almond-milk fair-trade latte to you. 

Correction, May 23, 2014: This piece misstated the percentage of American professors currently enjoying tenure. It is under 20 percent, not under 10 percent. (Return.)

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

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