Mike Adams fought the denial of his promotion to full professor in court and won in a free speech case against the University of North Carolina–Wilmington.
Adams is a UNC-W professor of criminology and inflammatory columnist with Townhall.com, an outlet that espouses conservative viewpoints.
This week, University of Montana School of Journalism Dean Larry Abramson said the school would not sponsor Adams as a lecturer because of his lack of journalism credentials. He also feared Adams would offend students.
In his columns, Adams frequently taunts liberals, and he targets feminists and LGBT people. He was accused of harassing a gay Muslim student in his writing, prompting a campus petition calling for his termination.
School of Journalism benefactor Maria Cole had invited Adams to speak at the 10th annual Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture named after her late husband, a Wall Street Journal reporter. After the dean rejected Adams, she opted to sponsor the Feb. 13 event without the School of Journalism.
In the last 15 years, Cole has given more than $1.2 million to the School of Journalism and was enthusiastic about planning a memorable 10th anniversary event. She said that after vetting dozens of bios, she tapped Adams because she knew his views would spark discussion and she appreciated his long-fought court battle, which resulted in free speech protection for a faculty member in an academic setting.
Adams, who regularly mocks liberals and has called transgender people mentally ill, successfully argued that his conservative views caused UNC-W to deny his promotion to full professor. At the time, Adams noted his teaching, research and service surpassed the standards for promotion.
In 2014, a jury found Adams' "speech activity" motivated UNC-W to deny his promotion. The court ordered the school to make Adams a full professor and awarded him a settlement of $50,000 in back pay.
Cole found the story compelling and Adams' willingness to fight in court for seven years on behalf of free speech inspiring. And she said if any faculty at UM were similarly denied advancement, she would fight on their behalf.
"I'll tell you straight up. I love the faculty members at UM, and I admire them. I've known them for 15 years (and have spent) tens of thousands of dollars supporting them.
"If anything like that ever happened to any of them, I would jump in so fast with an attorney," Cole said. "I can't even tell you."
Abramson, the journalism dean, has said Adams is free to come to campus, but not as a speaker sponsored by the School of Journalism. The dean said he does not believe Adams fits the profile of the annual Cole lecturer, who traditionally has been a respected journalist speaking on journalism issues.
UM President Sheila Stearns said she was not involved in the decision and only learned about the conflict late Wednesday afternoon.
Friday, she said she would not have balked at a controversial speaker. In fact, Stearns said UM hosts polarizing lecturers with frequency.
"Fear of controversy I don't think is and should never be a characteristic of a university," Stearns said.
The decision to bring a speaker to campus shouldn't be based on the person's politics or potential to inspire debate, she said. Had her counsel been sought in advance, Stearns said she would have recommended thorough planning for the lecture.
"We're never afraid of ideas," Stearns said. "I would say ... make sure the event is well-planned and safe."
The president also said the administration should be wary about dictating to the academy and meddling in curriculum.
"I support academic decisions. What I don't support is the university not welcoming a lecturer to campus," Stearns said.
The president said free speech and the free exchange of ideas is the operating principle in journalism, which she trusts leaders in the School of Journalism understand.
"I trust our deans. None of us is perfect," she said.
Cole has said she will continue to sponsor a scholarship and annual dinner for student newspaper staff, but she is reconsidering other giving to the School of Journalism.
In 1993, when Adams started working at UNC-W, he said he was an atheist. Three years later, he converted to Christianity after a life-changing encounter in Ecuador with prison inmates on death row, according to a narrative published by Alliance Defending Freedom.
The organization, which defended Adams, describes itself as "an alliance-building legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith."
After Adams' conversion and the publication of his conservative commentary pieces on Townhall.com, colleagues began targeting him with remarks and lower evaluations, according to the narrative and court documents. At one point, a court document said, Adams bowed out of a dinner party to attend a National Rifle Association event. "Go on ... to your fascist pig meeting," said the interim university chair, quoted in a court record.
Adams received high marks in student evaluations, court records said. He twice won professor of the year and earned the Golden Seahawk award for his service from "an elite student society."
But faculty evaluations changed after the lightning rod's publication of sometimes incendiary columns, including work critical of academia, according to court records. Peers started downgrading his teaching even though they had not observed his classes.
In 2006, he applied for a promotion but was rejected, prompting him to file a lawsuit claiming religious discrimination and free speech violations.
Court documents note the rationale for denying his promotion changed along the way. Originally, his department chair said Adams met promotion standards for teaching and service, but not research, a court document said. But she subsequently said he was "deficient in all three areas."
Although Adams had started writing conservative political columns, he also continued to publish in academic journals. He showed that his record of peer-reviewed publications exceeded the stated guidelines of the previous four department chairs, and the school imposed "transparently higher standards" on him, according to court records.
"Since 1983, no department member with 10 referred publications has been denied promotion to full professor at the department level, except Dr. Adams," said a court document.
Adams first lost his case in District Court. The Alliance appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the lower court's finding that Adams was not the subject of religious discrimination. But in a decision that rippled throughout higher education circles, the court said that a U.S. Supreme Court decision that had limited free speech rights for some public employees did not apply to faculty members of public colleges and universities and sent Adams' First Amendment claims back to the lower court for additional review.
In 2014, a jury found in Adams' favor on his free speech claims. According to the narrative published in the Alliance, UNC-W initially appealed the ruling, but later agreed to settle and also to adopt procedures to protect Adams from retaliation.
Adams told the Alliance he saw the case as a David and Goliath win.
"First of all, it shows that professors can speak out on issues of public concern, and integrate that within their work as professors, and not be punished for their viewpoint," Adams said to the Alliance. "But also, it shows that a conservative can stand up and fight — with ADF — and that there is a chance."