Marquette University Entangled in Court Case Involving Discussion of LGBT Issues

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in the case of a Marquette University professor who was suspended without pay after a dispute on free speech and  same-sex marriage.Professor John McAdams publicly blogged about a controversial dispute between a Marquette student and a teaching assistant regarding a class discussion on same-sex marriage.

The National Catholic Reporter, has followed the procession of the story. They report that the graduate school teaching assistant, Cheryl Abbate, refused to allow her class to discuss same sex marriage, saying that: “Everyone agrees on the issue and that there was no reason to discuss it further.” The issue then escalated after class when a student met with Abbate saying that the matter should have been discussed, and recorded their conversation without her consent. Abbate said that the student could drop the class if he did not agree with her teaching decisions. Professor McAdams then obtained the tapes and turned them into a personal blog post.

John McAdams

However, McAdams did more than report on the incident on his personal blog. He also shared the post with conservative news outlets and named Abbate as the teaching assistant in question. The National Catholic Reporter explained:

“Marquette acknowledged that if McAdams criticized a colleague, that was fair game — and he did so often. But, they argue, he had an obligation to not use a student’s name on his blog. He also linked to Abbate’s personal blog, which Marquette argued resulted in her receiving threatening emails.”

In a separate National Catholic Reporter article, the harassment of Abbate was described this way:

“Marquette and its supporters counter that academic freedom and free speech have nothing to do with McAdams’ discipline. The university argues that the publication of the teaching assistant’s name and linking to her personal blog on his blog in the late fall of 2014 subjected Abbate, also a student, to ‘disgusting and threatening comments’ — including rape — on Facebook, email and regular mail. The furor prompted the university to provide security and move Abbate’s classroom.”

Lawyers for the Jesuit-affiliated university argued in front of the Wisconsin Supreme Court that Professor McAdams intended to incite public opposition to the teaching assistant’s support of same-sex marriage.  The National Catholic Reporter described one courtroom exchange:

“Justice Rebecca Bradley asked if McAdams was expected to anticipate such a response and [Ralph] Weber [a lawyer representing Marquette] argued that was McAdams’ intended response to the blog. ‘You rev up a hostile audience, then you put a way to get in contact with that person in front of them,’  Weber said, adding that McAdams contacted a number of news outlets to drum up interest in the topic.”

In a previous article, The National Catholic Reporter reported on Professor McAdams’ rocky history with the Jesuit institution:

“McAdams, a Harvard-educated tenured professor in his 70s, joined the faculty in 1977. McAdams is described by his lawyers in a legal brief as ‘an outspoken defender of conservative values’ who ‘has been strongly critical of views described by him and others as ‘political correctness.’ ‘He frequently tangled with faculty in his blog, the Marquette Warrior — the name of the school’s mascot until 1993 when it was abandoned in response to concerns of Native Americans.”

Marquette is supported in its case by the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, among others.  McAdams’ support includes the Thomas More Society, a politically conservative law firm in Chicago. While the case is a tangle of free speech and academic freedom, it shows the continuing struggle that Marquette has had with LGBT equality on campus.

Earlier this year, Marquette University decided to go forward with a “Pride Prom” for LGBT students, after 18,000 people signed a petition in opposition to the event. In 2010, Marquette withdrew an offer of deanship to a lesbian woman. Former Marquette professor Father Bryan Massingale was been an outspoken proponent of LGBT equality before he left the campus two years ago.

In the Wisconsin Supreme Court case,  just as in the Pride Prom, Marquette University has walked the talk when it comes to being an LGBT inclusive Jesuit university. The suspension of Professor McAdams sets an important precedent for maintaining civil discourse on Catholic campuses.

Kaitlin Brown, New Ways Ministry, June 9, 2018


2 replies
  1. D. William Larson
    D. William Larson says:

    Shame to Professor McAdams for endangering the health and safety of Ms. Abbate. Stunts like McAdams’ are always volatile, and as an elderly man who has been politically active at least since the 1970s, he knew this to be true. He has willfully disregarded sensitivity to another human being, instead choosing morally reprehensible actions that certainly speak volumes to his lack of decency and his obsession with his own point of view. Like most of the rightwing politicos of our time he seems to have no compunction at all about winning his argument no matter the cost to another person.

    I applaud Marquette University for reprimanding McAdams and suspending him without pay. Perhaps McAdams will realize that his bully pulpit is unfit for civilized discourse; but if he does not it is my hope that the Wisconsin Supreme Court will remind him.

  2. Friends
    Friends says:

    Seems to me to be an infernally complicated entanglement between freedom of speech on the one hand, and the basic human right to be respected, which all members of the university — students, faculty and staff — clearly deserve. The Jesuits are typically top-notch in attaining and maintaining this balance of rights. It seems to me that the provocateur here is a far-right-wing faculty member, who is deliberately trying to incite social trouble on the campus. Vigorous academic discourse is a fantastic virtue. But attempting to deride and mock and smear other university members because of their innate sexual identity is absolutely out of bounds, as far as I can discern.


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