MMAC Backs MU Over McAdams in Free Speech Fight

By James Wigderson for Media Trackers

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) is asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court for permission to file a non-party brief in defense of Marquette University’s decision to fire Professor John McAdams. Why would a business organization wade into a free speech court battle between a university and a professor?

Steve Baas, the Senior Vice President – Governmental Affairs & Public Policy for MMAC, says the case has implications for his organization’s members beyond Marquette University.

“Independent of the specific McAdams incident, the case before the court raises significant questions concerning what is the extent of a private employer’s right to set work rules, conditions of employment, and internal procedures to adjudicate workplace disputes,” said Baas in an email Wednesday. “We have filed a request with the court that they allow us the opportunity to file an amicus brief in this case addressing those issues if we so choose.”

Marquette University is a member of The Business Council, a 501c3 affiliate of MMAC, with a “focus on cultivating relationships and business opportunities among MMAC’s ethically-diverse {sic} businesses and corporate members.” In addition, Jon Hammes (Hammes Company), Todd Adams (Rexnord Corporation) and Peggy Troy (Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin) serve as directors of MMAC and on the board of trustees for Marquette University.

State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg) accused the business organization of turning its back on free speech.

“It is a shame the Milwaukee area business group is turning their back on free speech in the McAdams case,” Stroebel said in a statement released Wednesday. “No employee should be fired for exercising their freedom of speech – especially when an employment contract protects the employee.”

McAdams was suspended indefinitely by the university in 2014 after a post on his blog, The Marquette Warrior, criticized philosophy instructor and graduate student Cheryl Abbate. In a recorded conversation, Abbate told a student at the Catholic university she would not allow discussion of viewpoints critical of same-sex marriage in her class. When McAdams’ blog post about the incident went viral,  Abbate said she received a number of harassing emails.

McAdams, a nationally recognized expert on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, appealed to a faculty committee, saying the academic freedom mentioned in his contract protected his right to free speech. The faculty committee issued a report in January 2016 recommending unpaid suspension for McAdams through the fall 2016 semester.

However, Marquette University President Michael Lovell added requirements before McAdams could be reinstated, including expressing regret for the alleged harm suffered by Abbate, even though McAdams was not responsible for the emails sent to Abbate. McAdams refused, effectively ending his employment at Marquette, and he sued the university to get his job back.

A Milwaukee County Circuit Court ruled against McAdams, deferring to the judgment of the faculty committee that McAdams should not have named Abbate in his blog post because of the emails that were sent afterward. Attorneys at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, who are representing McAdams in the case,  appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court saying Marquette University should not be the sole decider of the meaning of academic freedom in McAdams’ contract as that would render the term “academic freedom” meaningless.

MMAC explained in its request of the Supreme Court to file a brief that the organization would like court to consider “the goals and purposes of the organization employing the individual who claims his speech was infringed, by whom those goals and purposes of the organization are properly defined, the degree to which extramural speech that affects those purposes may be regulated, and the reasonable expectations of the owners, managers, and employees of the organization.”

However, Stroebel sees the issue as part of a larger attack on conservatives’ academic freedom.

“The McAdams case showcases the attack conservatives face on college campuses,” Stroebel said. “A conservative student rightly sought McAdams’s counsel when his teacher refused to discuss his values in a philosophy class. McAdams stood with the student. Marquette, and now MMAC, stand with political correctness and limiting the ‘extramural speech’ of employees.”

MMAC’s request also claims, “a brief filed by it will assist the Court by offering the perspective of a wide range of Milwaukee area businesses concerned that could be affected by a decision in this case.”

“While it is perfectly acceptable for MMAC to file any motion they wish with the court, it is disappointing they seek to regulate unrelated speech of employees,” Stroebel said.