John McAdams, a tenured professor of at Marquette University, a renowned Jesuit school and basketball powerhouse, launched a crusade against grad student and instructor Cheryl Abbate in November 2014 for supposedly squelching an undergraduate in her ethics class who wanted to discuss his opposition to gay marriage. McAdams didn’t stop there. He opened her up to the Wild West of the internet by linking to her personal information so others could hate on her. Also, on his blog, McAdams “doxed” her, providing personal identifying information to make it easy for others to harass her.
And they did. Abbate was deluged with threats, many violent, one calling her the “c” word with promises that an hour with him and she’d have a personal “understanding” of the “abhorrent behavior” these “freaks” engage in. Abbate dyed her hair and retreated from campus life. She moved her lectures to a new building, and security guards were posted outside her classroom. She noticeably lost weight. After the fall semester concluded, and despite losing three semesters of work and having to revise her dissertation, she left Marquette, the school she loved, to start over at a new institution in another state far away.
It’s just as well Abbate left. McAdams is back. The-72 year-old professor was fired in 2016 for exposing Abbate to threats. But Friday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that everything, including the doxing, is “activity protected” by academic freedom. By so ruling, the court rejected Marquette’s position that it wasn’t what McAdams wrote, it was what he did by outing Abbate which was outside the bounds of such protection. Marquette’s attorney Ralph Weber argued "had [McAdams] written the exact same blog post and not included the student-teacher's name and contact information he would not have been disciplined. It was conduct, not his opinion, that he was fired for.”
McAdams — and that of a conservative law firm that defended him and the Bradley Foundation, which partly subsidized him — brushed off any harm to Abbate with an “everybody does it” response about doxxing and a bet that the ultra-conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court would agree. The stakes weren’t simply getting McAdams reinstated with back pay, tenure compensation and benefits. It was notching another win in adapting the First Amendment, the province of war protesters, communists, and comedians using “seven dirty words” to their needs to take back politically correct college campuses, where they insist the right wing needs constitutional protection from the prevailing left.
It makes you wonder if today’s bloggers with their much greater reach than the pamphleteers are beyond what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. McAdams, a rumpled, steely-gray haired professor of political science who could play himself in the movie, went after a young grad student teacher knowing he would expose her to vultures on campus and beyond. Was it the thrill of the hunt, to feed his blog, because he could? Yes to all three but no to the obvious fourth question: There was no personal relationship that had gone bad to explain his enmity toward Abbate.
The intense relationship was between him and his social media followers. To feed his readers and get on talk radio, particularly the Charlie Sykes show, McAdams regularly tossed out red meat. He found a juicy morsel when a male student in Abbate’s class brought McAdams a secret recording of a hallway conversation with Abbate in which she pleaded with him to tone down his opposition to gays given that there were likely gay students in the class. Some veteran teachers like McAdams might see an occasion to counsel her (an instructor yes, but also a student) or take the undergrad’s complaint to the dean.
But McAdams didn’t because if you have a blog, everything is copy. In his time blogging, McAdams produced at least 3,000 posts — all conservative, most provocative (what a travesty to remove bathing suit competition from the Miss America pageant), some baseless (women routinely lie about being raped), many over the line, but not one called out by Marquette. He’d only been warned never to give out student information.
Like a child testing limits, McAdams doxed Abbate, a practice law enforcement calls dangerous for its officers and witnesses, and he’s been rewarded for it. When Marquette’s president suspended him for two semesters, after a finding by the Faculty Hearing Committee that he’d not behaved professionally and asked him to privately apologize to Abbate, he said “when hell freezes over” and appealed to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, which ruled in summary judgment that Marquette’s disciplinary process was fair and its finding right. Now the Supreme Court, with a conservative majority, has too.
In a blame-the-victim outburst, McAdams accused Abbate of wanting to become a martyr for the left when the only thing she wanted was to get her Ph.D and teach a good class on ethics. She was too inexperienced to guard against a student whose point was to shame gays in her class. By leaving Marquette at considerable sacrifice, Abbate wanted to get on with her life and put McAdams behind her. Something in a blogger didn’t want that to happen. As hard as Abbate and Marquette tried to keep her new school private, McAdams made sure to find out where she went and publicize it.
It’s not personal. It’s just copy with a sidebar of doxing. The court said there’s no limit to what a professor under cover of academic freedom can get away with two days after we celebrated July 4. Lady LIberty is weeping.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for the Daily Beast. She was formerly the first woman columnist at Time magazine, a columnist at Bloomberg View, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and managing editor at the New Republic. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.