The UNC prof leading the fight for free speech

Jane S. Shaw profiles him in The News & Observer, and no, it’s not the celebrity poverty center director laboring under the “chilling effect” of being asked to place a disclaimer on his op-eds and give a heads-up to university officials before the next one comes out.

It’s the professor who “suffered actual harm for expressing his views,” who in 2006 “was denied a promotion to full professor,” who “lost income as a result and experienced harassment and duplicitous treatment from his university.”

And who has been fighting a court battle ever since, with the support of the American Association of University Professors, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. His victory last month struck a blow for protecting speech rights on campuses that will resonate for years to come.

His name? Mike Adams of UNC-Wilmington. As Shaw writes,

Now, here’s the academic freedom story you probably haven’t heard about. …

Certain that the university denied his promotion because he had expressed unpopular views, Adams sued UNCW in 2007. His lawsuit, supported by the Alliance Defending Freedom, argued that when he was an atheist and a liberal, his department praised and promoted him, but when his views changed, he lost favor and was denied promotion in retaliation for his columns. He has been conducting this lawsuit for seven years.

Adams lost a district court case in 2010 but appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit. In this round, the American Association of University Professors, a progressive organization that undoubtedly would oppose many of his opinions, supported his appeal.

The AAUP contended that the district court had misinterpreted a Supreme Court decision (Garcetti v. Ceballos) restricting the free-speech rights of public employees. Along with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, AAUP argued that the Garcetti case should not be applied to university faculty.

Adams won the appeal and obtained a jury trial. This was a coup for a popular teacher – “witty, hilarious, knows what he’s talking about” is typical of his RateMyProfessors evaluations. The jury, meeting in Greenville agreed March 20 that Adams had been denied promotion to full professor in retaliation for expressing his Christian and conservative beliefs.

A couple of weeks later, the judge in the case did something even more surprising, perhaps historic – he ordered UNCW to make Adams a full professor with an additional $50,000 in back pay. This is a highly unusual directive to a university.

I wrote about Adams’ case yesterday in my newsletter in the context of the N&O’s vigilance against the potential chilling of Gene Nichol’s expression. A snippet:

To the ramparts over a disclaimer and a heads-up? Let us welcome such vigilance in the press in support of academic freedom and freedom of speech!

If adding a disclaimer puts university speech scolds on the warning track of chilling controversial speech, then they certainly wouldn’t dare risk running full-bore into the wall by denying promotion, changing standards, and launching secret investigations over controversial speech.

That would require consistency of vigilance, of course. Adams’ case — as important as it is — has gotten very little coverage, an unfortunate oversight.

Publishing Shaw’s piece addresses that oversight a little bit.

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