Justices on Wisconsin's Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday over Marquette University's decision to suspend an outspoken professor in a dispute that has pitted conservative allies against one another.
The case was brought by John McAdams, a Marquette University political science professor and conservative blogger who is being represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, against Marquette, which has the backing of Milwaukee's business lobby.
Marquette suspended McAdams after he wrote a blog attacking Cheryl Abbate, a graduate student and philosophy instructor, for telling students that everybody agrees with gay rights, and there was no reason to discuss it.
Abbate was confronted after class by a student who disagreed, and in a conversation he recorded, Abbate said the student didn't have a right to make homophobic comments in her class. The student then shared the recording with McAdams, who blogged about the exchange.
McAdams included a clickable link to her contact information and personal website, and Abbate began receiving negative, threatening emails. She has since left the university.
"This is not a case about free speech, it's about safety," Marquette attorney Ralph Weber told reporters after arguments. "You don't paint a target on the back of a student — put her out in front of a hostile audience so that she can receive vile and horrific threats — and claim that that is somehow consistent with your obligations as a professional."
Business groups are backing Marquette because they believe the state's most prominent private college should be allowed to make employee discipline decisions on its own.
McAdams' attorney, Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty President Rick Esenberg, said Marquette could do that if it hadn't promised professors like McAdams the right to speak freely on campus.
"If academic freedom means anything at all, it has to mean that he can't be fired for writing that blog post," Esenberg said, telling justices that the post for which McAdams was suspended without pay was accurate.
The case will be decided by six justices because Justice Annette Ziegler did not hear the case. That leaves a 4-3 conservative majority instead of the usual 5-2 split.
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Three of the conservative justices — Rebecca Bradley, Michael Gableman and Daniel Kelly — asked sharp questions of Marquette's attorney, with Gableman going so far as to suggest Marquette's justification for suspending McAdams might as well have been written by "the ghost of (George) Orwell."
Conservative Chief Justice Patience Roggensack and liberal Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, meanwhile, questioned whether McAdams had different First Amendment protections at Marquette than he would at a government campus like the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who listened via telephone, did not speak during arguments.
Speaking to reporters afterward, McAdams said he wasn't sure what the court would decide.
"Well, three justices completely savaged Marquette's lawyer," McAdams said. "However, I need more than three votes."
McAdams said if he wins, he'll return to teaching at Marquette.
"Because while I have essentially zero respect for the people who are running the place, the students are pretty good," he said.
Marquette's attorney noted McAdams was suspended by a unanimous vote of seven of his peers on the Marquette faculty.
McAdams said a process like that would always work against conservatives like him because most professors are liberal.