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Judge Rules Against Marquette Professor Over Public Rebuke of TA

Marquette University was justified in disciplining a professor who had publicly rebuked a graduate teaching assistant over her handling of classroom discussions of homosexuality, a state judge ruled on Thursday.

The judge rejected the argument by John McAdams, a tenured associate professor of political science, that academic freedom had given him the right to attack the graduate teaching assistant by name in a blog post. Noting that the student subsequently received threatening emails from the blog’s readers, Judge David A. Hansher, of the Wisconsin circuit court in Milwaukee, held that academic freedom “does not mean that a faculty member can harass, threaten, intimidate, ridicule, or impose his or her views on students.”

Judge Hansher also repudiated the professor’s argument that he could publicly attack the graduate student without violating his own professional obligations because she had been pursuing her advanced degree in a separate academic department, philosophy. His ruling said: “Dr. Adams’s distinction between blogging about students in his own department, as opposed to blogging about students in other departments, makes no sense since they are all graduate students that are entitled to the same protection against harassment and criticism.”

In response to to Mr. McAdams’s argument that the graduate teaching assistant should have been seen as fair game for public criticism in light of her role as an instructor, Judge Hansher said she was both an instructor and a graduate student, and her status as a graduate student “cannot be ignored.” The student ended up dropping out of Marquette as a result of the blog post, in which the professor printed not only her name but also a link to her contact information and her personal website.

The judge’s ruling dismissed all of the lawsuit’s claims against the Roman Catholic university, which Mr. McAdams had accused of violating his academic freedom, breaching his contract, and denying him his right to free speech and due process.

Mr. McAdams vowed to appeal the ruling in a statement issued by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, an advocacy group that had provided him with legal representation. The statement argued that the university had handled his case through a process that was badly flawed and biased against him.

“If a professor can be held responsible for the actions of every person who reads or even hears about what the professor writes, then they have no protections at all,” said Rick Esenberg, the Wisconsin Institute’s president.

Marquette issued a statement in which Michael R. Lovell, its president, called the ruling “a strong affirmation of our guiding values and our efforts to stand up for our students.”

“We’ve maintained throughout this process,” Mr. Lovell said, “that a personal attack on one of our students is simply unacceptable.”

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