Marquette erred in punishment of professor, court says

On behalf of Fox & Fox, S.C.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in July that Marquette University breached its contract with a faculty member in reprimanding him for a blog post from 2014. The 4-2 ruling overturned the district court’s prior decision and ordered the university to immediately reinstate the professor following the multi-year legal battle.

Political science professor John McAdams criticized a graduate student instructor in a blog post due to her treatment of a debate about same-sex marriage during a classroom discussion. A student from that course came to McAdams with an audio recording and expressed concerns that the instructor shut down his conservative viewpoints during the debate.

The blog post titled “Marquette Philosophy Instructor: ‘Gay Rights’ Can’t Be Discussed in Class Since Any Disagreement Would Offend Gay Students” included the graduate instructor’s name and contact information. She then received hateful messages and threats to the point where a security guard accompanied her to classes. She later transferred universities.

In 2016, a panel of faculty recommended McAdams receive an unpaid suspension for two semesters, but the university president added an additional requirement in the form of an apology to the former graduate student.

McAdams sued for breach of contract

Following the faculty panel’s recommendation and president’s decision, McAdams sued for breach of contract. His argument hinged on the Faculty Handbook and other documents relating to his tenured position which indicated the university could only dismiss him with good cause due to conduct which showed he was unfit to serve in the position.

In the state Supreme Court’s decision, Justice Daniel Kelly made clear the court was unconvinced the blog post showed McAdams was unfit to serve or that he had violated his responsibilities to Marquette students. The court acknowledged the harassment targeting the graduate instructor, but said McAdams was not responsible for the actions of others following his release of her contact information.

Employer overreach

This case exemplifies the murky landscape of employer responsibilities and employee freedoms. While the Marquette administration and faculty seemed to be looking out for the campus well-being and protection of a graduate student, their intentions overstepped and violated another employee’s rights. Issues similar to this case crop up in employment law cases regularly which is why legal professionals work to protect the interests and rights of both employees and employers.

Wrongful termination and breach of contract can harm a career and have lasting effects. Know your options if you believe you’ve been subject to mistreatment in the workplace.

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