McAdams’s critics reject free speech argument

In arguing for for John McAdams’s dismissal, Lisa Pease recommends the account from the graduate student involved, Cheryl Abbate. Here’s Abbate’s blog post about the controversy. 

Her defense is worth reading because it highlights what was problematic about her handling of the incident. Abbate clearly believes that the student who argued against gay marriage was, simply by stating his case, violating the Marquette’s “safe place” policy, which forbids “harassment,” meaning:

verbal, written or physical conduct directed at a person or a group based on color, race, national origin, ethnicity, religion, disability, veteran status, age, gender or sexual orientation where the offensive behavior is intimidating, hostile or demeaning or could or does result in mental, emotional or physical discomfort, embarrassment, ridicule or harm.

I suppose it is true that a gay student might experience “emotional discomfort” when confronted with an argument against gay marriage in a classroom. Does that mean the argument is “offensive behavior” or constitutes an act of “harassment” in the commonsense meaning of the word? Did the student’s factually weak argument warrant Abbate’s threat to exclude him from the classroom ? I don’t think so.

This is what McAdams was objecting to. Her behavior doesn’t justify his. But her stance does embody the pernicious but increasingly pervasive belief that college students have a right not be “offended” that supersedes other students’ right to express an opinion. So the argument that “this is about McAdams’s behavior not free speech” isn’t accurate. It’s about both.

Pease’s claim that anybody who doesn’t agree with her on this issue isn’t a “real researcher” is vanity incarnate and doesn’t require a response.

Several readers pointed out, in response to my post, that McAdams had been warned previously about his behavior, which I agree strengthens Marquette’s case for dismissal.

Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic says Marquette’s action is an “attack on academic freedom,” which seems over the top. I think Marquette administrators have abused their discretion. I don’t think they’re attacking academic freedom.


  1. Thomas says:

    Political correctness has gone awry at the college level. Abbate used a subtle form of intimidation with a student, not nearly as aggressive as McAdams, but still a clear message: you don’t have a right to share that point of view in the classroom without repercussions to you. So much for free speech and exchange of ideas at the college level.

    I would argue that many college students have “gotten” this message: that they dare not speak their opinions on hot-button social issues in classes with professors that wear their social views on their sleeves.

    I think there is wrong on both sides and I don’t think it rises to the the level of dismissal for McAdams, unless there is more to this case that hasn’t been told. Disciplinary action, yes. Dismissal, no.

  2. leslie sharp says:

    Jeff, I may have missed Lisa Pease’s reference to Cheryll Abbate, bit I drew attention to her “about the controversy” web page early in this exchange and encouraged a more thorough evaluation of the events. Have you read the entire thing and followed the links to the various sites that detail her version? This thread does not indicate you have done so. And have you read the excerpt from the letter sent by Dean Holz to Professor McAdams outlining the reasons for dismissal? I have a comment on hold (perhaps it is too long) that links to the letter and highlights what I believe to be pertinent (to this site) issues regarding the professor’s methods:

    “critical information was stated falsely and/or omitted . .”
    “Similarly, by leaving out any reference . . ”
    “you created a false impression . . “
    “Or you elected not to include these facts . . ”
    “or again you elected not to include . . ”
    “or you ignored, the fact . . ”

    These are similar to charges made on this site about Prof. McAdams method of argument for months and months. I feel vindicated that Dean Holz has identified and condemned him for it.

  3. Lisa Pease says:

    Wow, Jeff. That was not my argument for McAdams’ dismissal. My point was that people hadn’t even heard from the person offended but were already espousing a point of view.

    The case for McAdams is simple. He broke his employers rules multiples times and after multiple warnings. In what world does that not get you fired? Tenure is to protect freedom of opinion, but not to protect freedom to willfully disregard university rules.

    That you have misrepresented what I have said makes me wonder what else you have misrepresented.

    • “Tenure is to protect freedom of opinion, but not to protect freedom to willfully disregard university rules.”~Lisa Pease

      It appears to me Lisa, that the “university rules” do not actually protect freedom of opinion. I think that is the dichotomy that everyone here is trying to figure out.

      If we just use the criteria of “freedom of opinion” as the goal post here, it is obvious that all concerned in this controversy are guilty of disparaging freedom of opinion. The student who taped the conversation was clearly disabused of his freedom of opinion. His teacher, by enforcing “university rules” is part of that problem, and McAdams himself disabuses her freedom of opinion in the very same way.
      As Buffalo Springfield said, “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong”
      For what it’s worth…

    • Bob Prudhomme says:

      If I was paying Mr. McAdams’ salary, and I saw how much time he spent writing vicious blogs and denying JFK conspiracies, I would be starting to wonder just how much of his time and attention I was getting for my money.

      • lysias says:

        That’s assuming he isn’t receiving government grants that the university appreciates for all his pro-government blogging.

  4. Eddy says:

    To suggest McAdam’s potential dismissal is a free speech issue on the JFKfacts website is a somewhat devious proposition.

    Are you debating that McAdams has a right to pronounce on JFK’s assassination or are you debating on Marquette’s alleged suppression of free Speech? Pat Speer has identified that McAdams gave Marquette plenty of ammo in the public domain, and a quick view of his posts on JFK sites would provide further ammo, in support of the charges against him. Certainly the posts on JFK facts display the conflation of these two entirely separate issues.

    Whether Prof McAdams has had his rights infringed by Marquette is a good source of debate. Its not very fair on him to debate it on a JFK site, as it will, and has been used to attack him on another subject entirely.

  5. Eddy says:

    “Did the student’s factually weak argument warrant Abbate’s threat to exclude him from the classroom ? I don’t think so.” Abbate is quoted as denying she threatened a exclude the student, someone has posted this on the other thread.

  6. Karma? Has McAdam’s own MO come back to bite him in his posterior?

    I would be of the opinion that it has. I have a hard time finding empathy for his position in this situation, all things considered.

  7. Pat Speer says:

    When people treat this as a free speech issue they are swallowing the line put out by McAdams, which is not based on reality, IMO. When one reads through the dean’s letter and all the info on the various blogs one realizes that McAdams is being fired not for his beliefs, but for harassing a student. On two prior occasions, he had posted the names of left-wing female students on his blog, who were subsequently harassed by the militant right-wing predominantly male readers of his blog. The university had warned him about this. He had promised not to do this again. And yet here he turned around and 1) defied protocol by naming a student teacher in his blog 2) misrepresented an incident between a student and the student teacher in order to make the behavior of the student teacher more objectionable to his readers, 3) defied protocol by criticizing the student teacher on a public forum, as opposed to alerting the administration about her actions 4) made use of an illicit recording (presumably made for his benefit) while constructing his criticism of the student teacher’s actions 5) misrepresented the nature of the student who’d made the recording of the student teacher (the student was in fact an F student preparing to drop out of the class, who apparently decided to get a little payback before his departure by goading the student teacher into saying something McAdams could use to destroy her), and 6) created a link on his blog to an email address for the student teacher which led to her receiving a hundred or more hate emails, many suggesting she should be raped or killed.

    On what planet is this not grounds for termination? Consider… IF the university failed to fire McAdams and he decided to harass yet another female student who defied his expectations of proper feminine behavior by naming her on his blog, and she was killed, injured, or even just harassed, he would have exposed the university to millions of dollars in damages.

    The university fired McAdams because he left them little real alternative.

    • Fearfaxer says:

      That’s a brilliant summation of the this issue. Thank you.

      I think it also needs to be said that there are right-wing organizations that recruit like-minded college students to assist them in targeting and harassing professors and instructors deemed to be left-wing, anti-American, anti-Israel (which of course means they’re anti-Semitic!), etc. I’m not saying that’s what was going on here, but it would not surprise me at all if it were.

      • Paulf says:

        Pat, thanks for the perspective.

        I think Jeff has the free speech argument backwards.

        McAdams and his defenders are trying to avoid punishment for behavior that would get any non-political professor fired. In effect, they think he should have a free pass to break university employment rules because he is a strident political activist.

        That’s perverse, and what he did to the student teacher is the outrage.

  8. What kind of professor in a college smears individual students publicly on a blog?

  9. People need to realize their feelings are largely irrelevant. Facts and open discussion fuels education, not suppression of those with untenable ideas. Bad ideas deserve the discussion and public detraction to distinguish them from good ideas. If everyone agrees there is no chance for progress. Firing him changes nothing, humbling him may.

  10. J. Ian Roth says:

    Ms. Pease makes a definitive argument for distinguishing McAdams’ professional failures from his unchallenged right to comment on the Kennedy assassination. But this entire discussion is impertinent to the work of JFK researchers. McAdams is a disreputable and unreliable attention-seeker acting in bad faith. He is not equatable to the well-credentialed Vincent Bugliosi, and few (beyond Mr. Morley) take him seriously. He has a record of distorting history, omitting critical information, and thereby misinforming his readers. Beyond that, he’s highly emotional and repeatedly resorts to juvenile tactics and puerile prose to dismiss, without counter-argument, the work of serious researchers. James DiEugenio, with “Reclaiming Parkland,” presented a stellar rebuttal to Bugliosi’s “Reclaiming History.” Such a response was merited, not just because of Bugliosi’s bona fides, but because objective observers could conclude that Bugliosi was acting in good faith. McAdams, by contrast, is little more than a willful denialist, repeating long-discredited talking points (derived from Posner and Bugliosi) ad infinitum. Your website is above this discussion, Mr. Morley. It’s distracting and pointless. By lifting up your ill-intentioned “adversary,” you’re simultaneously undermining your own credibility.

    • Pat Speer says:

      Say what you will about John McAdams, Mr. Roth, but the media has long taken him very seriously. He was quoted in numerous articles written for the 50th anniversary of the assassination, and was presented onscreen in a number of TV specials. NOVA even used him as its top adviser. The media worships him so much, in fact, that, instead of reporting on the contents of the 50th anniversary conference in Pittsburgh, almost certainly the last group appearance of long-time critics such as Mark Lane, Cyril Wecht, Josiah Thompson, Robert Groden, Robert Tanenbaum, Oliver Stone, Gary Aguilar, etc, Time Magazine decided to write a story about the conference from McAdams’ perspective. As if his appearance at the conference was more newsworthy than the presentations of all the researchers at the conference…combined…

      • leslie sharp says:

        Pat Speer, my issue precisely. John McAdams’ influence over the assassination debate in the last several decades has been extremely significant because the mainstream media has paid attention to him and ignored those you name; to diminish that fact, or to overlook the implications related to the latest episode at Marquette that expose his patterns of, at best obfuscation of the facts avoids the elephant in the room: has he been involved in the ongoing cover up?

      • I agree with both J. Ian Roth & Pat Speer.
        Which leads to an interesting possibility of a next act in this political theater. If McAdam’s is as is apparent a darling of the Public Relations Regime, then he is just as loved by the System this PR regime represents. This System alas is combined with the judicial system, where “string theory” can be applied in the aspect of a larks tongue.

        • leslie sharp says:

          So Willy, if one can twist any string of information to suit one’s agenda, and if the devil can quote scripture, what are we left with? “Do you get a yes or a no feeling?”

          Leaving the larks tongue for another discussion …. “string string is a wonderful thing, rope is thicker but string is quicker.” (courtesy Spike Milligan)

      • Anonymous Contributor says:

        McAdams’s reprehensible treatment of Cheryl Abbate is likely to terminate not only his academic career but also his usefulness to the media as an authority on JFK-related matters. The more respectable newspapers and TV stations can only continue to promote the official account of the assassination if their spokesmen and sources can be portrayed as being reasonably objective. Like Gerald Posner, though for different reasons, McAdams now fails this test.

        Once the current incident ceases to be misrepresented as a question of freedom of speech, and McAdams’s vindictive personal behavior and extreme reactionary political views become widely known, his only outlets are likely to be Fox News and hate radio.

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