- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mike Adams isn’t exactly the most popular guy on campus. He’s an outspoken conservative Christian who cried discrimination when his department refused to promote him to full professor and slapped the University of North Carolina at Wilmington with a lawsuit.

Now, he finds himself the poster child for academic freedom.

In rejecting Mr. Adams’ claim, a federal judge ruled that his writings weren’t protected by the First Amendment, a decision that has alarmed academics on both ends of the ideological spectrum.

“All of a sudden, the leftists are waking up and saying, ‘Holy crap!’” Mr. Adams said. “I’m in the middle of something huge, something way bigger than I ever expected. And it’s awesome.”

The Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based organization of Christian lawyers, plans to appeal the ruling to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. At that point, Mr. Adams may well have the support of the American Association of University Professors, which will likely file an amicus brief on his behalf, said Rachel Levinson, the group’s senior counsel.

“The judge in the Adams case is taking a very broad view of what speech should be unprotected,” Ms. Levinson said. “It really puts a chilling effect on what [subjects] faculty members would be willing to speak on.”

In the Adams case, District Judge Malcolm Howard cited a 2006 Supreme Court decision, Garcetti v. Cabellos, which held that the First Amendment did not protect public employees whose speech was related to their “official duties.”

At the same time, the court specifically sidestepped whether the ruling applied to higher education. Indeed, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, deliberately left open the issue of “speech related to scholarship and teaching.”

Such reservations on the high court’s part haven’t stopped lower courts from using the decision in ruling against professors, usually those who have criticized their administrations. The Adams case is different in that it involves a professor’s political speech, which could make it a better test case for the high court, Ms. Levinson said.

“The Supreme Court might be waiting for a case that presents the issues more squarely, and Adams might be that case,” she said.

Mr. Adams’ saga began when he renounced atheism and embraced Christianity after a 1996 trip to an Ecuadorean prison. At the time, he was “a real leftist,” he says, as well as a tenured associate professor in the university’s sociology and criminal justice department.

As his views shifted to the right, Mr. Adams said he became the subject of petty criticisms and accusations within the department. He said one professor accused him of spraying tear gas in her office, even though a police investigation found no trace of gas. He also said he was forced to turn over his e-mails to the university after he criticized an e-mail sent by a student that blamed the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the United States.

Of course, Mr. Adams made for a ripe target.

In 2003, he began writing conservative opinion columns for townhall.com that often mocked academia. He took on the AAUP in a 2009 article titled “The American Association of Unprincipled Progressives.” Other columns include, “Welcome to UC Islam,” “Buddha, Take the Wheel,” and “May the Fleas of 1,000 Camels Infest Your Speech Code.”

In addition to being a prolific columnist, Mr. Adams also published 11 peer-reviewed research articles and won multiple awards for his teaching. He felt that should have been enough to earn a full professorship, but it wasn’t.

“In the history of the department, there has never been anyone with as many scholarly publications as I’ve had and not make it,” Mr. Adams said. “I’m absolutely certain I would have been promoted if I hadn’t converted to Christianity.”

In its legal briefs, the university argued that Mr. Adams was denied a promotion because he hadn’t published as many scholarly articles in recent years, and that some of them had been co-authored. They also said his service to the university, such as his work as a faculty adviser, was only average.

David French, director of the ADF’s Center for Academic Freedom, said it was clear that the university was employing an “ideological litmus test.”

“When he applied for full professor, multiple comments were made of his right-wing views,” Mr. French said. “There was a clear indication that there was an ideological litmus test. They even allowed the professor who accused him of tear-gassing her office to vote.”

Before Mr. French could argue that Mr. Adams was being punished for his views, his writings needed to be deemed protected speech. In his promotion application, however, Mr. Adams put down that he was a column writer under a section titled “community service.”

“The university made the argument that his writings were part of the job. So even though they had insisted for all those years that he spoke for himself, they now said that his columns and speeches were work-related and therefore not protected by the First Amendment,” Mr. French said. “And the judge agreed.”

In his ruling, the judge said that to label the columns protected speech would be “to place employers in a double bind.” If university officials refused to consider the columns, they would have been subject to free-speech violations as a result of the refusal, he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Adams finds himself the unlikely champion of public university professors nationwide. Win or lose, it’s a role he clearly enjoys.

“The Constitution is a process, not a result,” said Mr. Adams. “You don’t have to get to a set destination in order for the fight to be worth doing.”

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