To mock or mentor questioned

WASHINGTON — 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 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.

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.

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, she made several regrettable, nay, preposterous statements, one debating that same-sex marriage was “homophobic.”

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.

Finally, he went to McAdams.

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.”

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

How does one render a 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.

For now, alas, the only certainty is that Rawls’ no-harm-to-others principle is NA — non applicable. Too much foul, too much harm.