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Victory for academic freedom: 4th Circuit says professor’s speeches, columns protected by First Amendment

Decision against UNC-Wilmington sets significant precedent protecting professors who express their views on religious, political topics

RICHMOND, Va. — A University of North Carolina–Wilmington professor’s speeches and columns are fully protected by the First Amendment, according to a published decision handed down Wednesday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. Alliance Defense Fund attorneys contended that criminology professor Mike Adams was denied a promotion unconstitutionally because university officials were hostile to the religious and political views he espoused in his columns and speeches.

A lower court had said that Adams’ speeches and columns on matters of public concern were not protected by the First Amendment and instead constituted “official” speech as part of his job duties.  The 4th Circuit disagreed, finding that Adams’ columns and speeches constituted protected, private speech and that university officials could be held personally liable for damages should Adams ultimately prevail in the case.

“Christian professors should not be discriminated against because of their beliefs, and this decision thoroughly upholds that,” said ADF Senior Counsel David French, who argued before the court in January.  “The 4th Circuit’s decision is a ringing vindication of the academic freedom of public university professors.  Disagreeing with an accomplished professor’s religious and political views is no grounds for refusing him promotion.  Opinion columns are among the purest examples of free speech protected by the First Amendment.”

In its opinion in Adams v. The Trustees of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, the 4th Circuit wrote that “no individual loses his ability to speak as a private citizen by virtue of public employment….  Adams’ columns addressed topics such as academic freedom, civil rights, campus culture, sex, feminism, abortion, homosexuality, religion, and morality.  Such topics plainly touched on issues of public, rather than private, concern….  The Defendants’ arguments to the contrary rest on the same fallacy engaged by the district court, and focus not on the nature of Adams’ speech at the time it was made, but on his inclusion of those materials in the ‘private’ context of his promotion application.  Nothing in the district court’s analysis or the Defendants’ contentions rebut the conclusion that Adams’ speech was that of ‘a citizen speaking on a matter of public concern.’”

A former atheist, Adams frequently received accolades from his colleagues after the university hired him as an assistant professor in 1993 and promoted him to associate professor in 1998. However, after his conversion to Christianity in 2000, Adams was subjected to a campaign of academic persecution that culminated in his denial of promotion to full professor, despite an award-winning record of teaching, research, and service.

The case now goes back to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina for further proceedings consistent with the 4th Circuit’s conclusions on Adams’ viewpoint discrimination and retaliation claims.

ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.