Opinion: Daily Journal

The UNC Professor Leading the Fight For Free Speech, Academic Freedom

RALEIGH — There is a UNC professor whose controversial opinion articles have gotten the “campus roiling,” to use a phrase from The News & Observer’s editorialist Jim Jenkins, so much so that “it’s clear” they want him gone.

Jenkins warns against a “chilling effect” against speech and invokes the memory of the 1960s Speaker Ban Law. He cautions against “bowing to bullies” and hails the special importance of controversial ideas being protected by free speech as well as academic freedom. As he puts it:

A great university isn’t just supposed to be a welcoming place for free speech, it’s supposed to champion it.

Jenkins reminds his readers that the late UNC president Bill Friday “knew such people are an example of a university’s strength, not its vulnerability.”

A historic case

There is a UNC professor whose controversial opinion articles were a “substantial or motivating factor,” to use the phrase of a historic federal appeals court jury’s finding just last month, in his university’s decision to prevent him from receiving tenure and becoming a full professor.

The professor is at the Wilmington campus of UNC. His name is Mike Adams, and for the record, he is a friend of mine. He is also the leading figure in the UNC system in the fight for free speech and academic freedom. His case extends back to 2006, and I have been writing about it from the start. (Several links to those writings can be found here.)

Here is a brief summary of the issues involved (emphasis added):

The university denied Adams’ promotion to full professor despite the fact that he was an award-winning teacher (often receiving the highest marks in the department), had more scholarly publications than the vast majority of his colleagues and more publications than his current and previous department chair at equivalent stages in their careers (indeed, no one with a similar publication record had ever been rejected for promotion), and had rendered service to the university sufficient to win one of the university’s most-coveted service awards.

As part of his promotion application, Adams submitted his peer-reviewed publications to satisfy the “research”” component of the promotion, also submitted a book that was a compilation of his essays, and noted that he performed “service” to the university and community through his public speeches and Townhall.com columns. In response, his colleagues unleashed a torrent of bile (in writing) regarding the viewpoints in his columns while considering his promotion application. Additionally, the chancellor of the university herself had initiated a secret investigation of Adams for his alleged “transphobia.” When explaining the promotion denial to Adams, his department chair indicated that one reason for the denial was that his colleagues found his “service” had undefined “negative effects” on members of the department.

Here is a finding that ought to shame the university — and earn it editorial opprobrium — for years:

Professor Adams, however, is not the subject of Jenkins’ column. Rather, Jenkins’ concern — what prompted him to lionize academic freedom, free speech, and a great university’s protection of both, and to remind readers of the Speaker Ban Law and the principles of Bill Friday — is that

in what seems to be a chilling development, [UNC-Chapel Hill Law Professor Gene] Nichol’s bosses in Chapel Hill have asked him to give them a “heads up” when he’s going to have a tough piece in the paper, and they’ve also asked him to qualify what he writes with the disclaimer that he doesn’t speak for the university.

To the ramparts over a disclaimer and a heads-up? Let us welcome such vigilance in the press in support of academic freedom and freedom of speech!

If adding a disclaimer puts university speech scolds on the warning track of chilling controversial speech, then they certainly wouldn’t dare risk running full-bore into the wall by denying promotion, changing standards, and launching secret investigations over controversial speech.

That would require consistency of vigilance, of course. Adams’ case — as important as it is — has gotten very little coverage, an unfortunate oversight.

When the issue is as vital to society’s greatness, not just university greatness, as free speech, then as Jenkins writes, “Liberal or conservative, who cares?”

Jon Sanders (@jonpsanders) is Director of Regulatory Studies for the John Locke Foundation.