John McAdams is a walking test of the First Amendment.
The Marquette political science professor is an obnoxious, persistent climate-change denier with a passion for attacking skeptics of the official theory of JFK’s assassination and smearing “liberals” for supposedly suppressing free speech. He is, in a word, an ass, an independent-minded donkey of a scholar with a thin skin and bad manners.
Once upon a time, he tried to accuse me (and this website) of supposedly suppressing his JFK opinions, an argument that he had to abandon when I welcomed his anti-conspiracist views on the site (within the capacious limits of the site’s comment policy).
I didn’t ban McAdams’s comments, as some readers demanded, because, for all his faults, he has a deep knowledge of the historical record of the JFK story, and because I thought (and think) that publishing his opinions serves the site’s goal of — and the public’s interest in — the fullest possible debate of the causes of JFK’s assassination.
Now Marquette is seeking to revoke McAdams’s tenure for a characteristically boorish attack on a colleague, and the community of citizens interested in the JFK assassination story is divided about whether to applaud his dismissal or defend him.
In a Jan. 30 letter to McAdams, Marquette dean Richard Holz makes the university’s case. In a blog post published last November, McAdams attacked a graduate teaching assistant who told an undergraduate that his views opposing gay marriage were not welcome in her classroom. Relying on a surreptitiously recorded conversation between the student and the teacher, McAdams accused her of “totalitarian” behavior. As a predictable result, the graduate student was bombarded with abusive, threatening comments. She felt so threatened she transferred to another university.
“Instead of being an example of academic excellence and competence as a tenured, senior faculty member, your inaccurate, misleading and superficial Internet story lacked any measure of the due diligence we expect from beginning students.”
“Instead of being a mentor to a graduate student instructor learning her craft — including how to deal with challenging students — you took the opportunity publicly to disparage her, in a manner that resulted in her personal safety being put at risk, and you did so without knowing key facts surrounding the events about which you wrote.”
JFK Scholars Weigh In
Joan Mellen, a Temple University literature professor and author of several JFK books who abhors McAdams’s views on the JFK story, wrote in an email:
“My feeling is that we have to defend and protect John McAdams, precisely because he is incorrect and wrong. The test of the first amendment is that it must protect repellent speech, views that are wrong, and even disgust us. That even includes racist views, as the ACLU argued in its defense of the Klan in Skokie.”
Peter Dale Scott, emeritus professor at University of California, wrote, “to take away his tenure seems to me like gross overkill, possibly for reasons having to do with a heavily bureaucratized Catholic hierarchy.”
Joining Mellen in defense of McAdams are David Talbot, founding editor of Salon.com and a JFK author, and Jerry Policoff, former executive director of the Assassination Archive and Research Center in Washington DC. (The AARC has not taken a position on McAdams.)
Lisa Pease, an independent JFK scholar, approves of McAdams’s dismissal, saying Marquette’s letter shows that he is “to put it very gently, wrong” to claim he is the victim of “political correctness.” Len Osanic, a producer of a YouTube video series on the JFK case, wrote, “They finally got Al Capone through income tax. They finally got McAdams because of his attack on a student teacher. It is a total joke to forgive him for all the shit and slander he has caused. His attacks of the JFK research community should not be overlooked.”
“Hand the obnoxious bastard over to ISIS,” wrote Walt Brown, another JFK researcher.
The Bottom Line
Marquette is within its rights to act as it has, given its stated tenure policies. Holz was careful to say that McAdams was being dismissed not for his opinions, but for his irresponsible and uncollegial behavior. But just because Marquette has the right to dismiss McAdams doesn’t mean it should.
I’m with Joan Mellen, Peter Dale Scott, and David Talbot that he should not be fired. His unprofessional defense of an unpopular opinion while attacking a colleague is cause for disciplinary action, not revocation of tenure. Repeated instances of such behavior might be cause for revocation of tenure but Marquette has not alleged that McAdams has engaged in such conduct before. At a minimum, he deserves a warning. His views on the JFK case are irrelevant to the principle at stake.
As Mellen wrote, defending wrong-headed opinions “is the only way we can keep the First Amendment healthy enough to defend all of us, and whatever we have to say.”