Adams v. Trustees of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington
What's at stake
- The right of university professors of any faith or political perspective to express their views without facing retaliation from government officials.
- The right of conservatives and Christians to serve as university professors without experiencing discrimination and retaliation for expressing their views and beliefs.
- The right of conservative and Christian university professors to receive a fair evaluation, without being punished or passed over because they express opinions that university officials do not like.
When Dr. Adams applied for promotion to full professor in 2006, he had no idea he was about to embark upon a constitutional adventure that would last more than seven years. Given his record of accomplishment as a teacher, scholar, and community servant, he had little reason to be concerned about his prospects. But when he was denied promotion, he would gradually expose the depths of animosity towards Christians and conservatives at UNC-Wilmington.
When Dr. Adams arrived at UNCW in 1993, he was a liberal atheist. In the years that followed, he collected an impressive array of accolades for his skills as a teacher, for his output as a scholar, and for his service to the community and university. This included a variety of teaching awards, extremely high student evaluations (sometimes the highest in his department), and a prestigious service award.
In 2000, Dr. Adams became a Christian, and his conversion impacted his political views. In 2002, he began to publish on-line columns in his free time that addressed cultural and political issues from a conservative perspective and that often critiqued higher education.
As a result, his work environment at UNCW changed dramatically. One colleague labeled him a “pathological liar” in the newspaper and filed numerous charges—including “workplace terrorism” accusations—against him without any evidence whatsoever. Others derided him as a “wannabe right wing pundit” and criticized his columns for being too “mean spirited.” Eventually, his supervisor gave him a poor annual evaluation, saying that he was spending too much time on “political matters” and not enough time on research—even though Dr. Adams published nearly twice as many articles as his supervisor. Later, the Chancellor launched a secret investigation of him after an out-of-town anarchist group called the Gender Mutiny Collective complained about his columns.
Even so, when Dr. Adams applied for promotion in 2006, he was confident in his record of achievement. He had out-published all but two of his colleagues, and professors with far fewer than his eleven scholarly publications had previously been promoted. His teaching awards and above-average student evaluations testified to his teaching prowess, and his service record—both on and off campus—was clear.
To UNCW officials, however, this was not enough. They denied Dr. Adams this promotion in a process replete with violated policies, manipulation, deception, and conflicts of interest. They applied a made-up promotion standard that flatly contradicted the faculty handbook. They passed along false information about his academic record, and they deceptively edited documents to turn the faculty vote against Dr. Adams. Later, they openly and repeatedly discussed Dr. Adams’ columns, holding his views against him and even mocking him for them. They allowed the professor who filed false felony charges against him to participate in the promotion process, an outrageous conflict of interest. And after all this, they tried to cover up their illegal actions by giving different explanations for their decision, ultimately claiming that Dr. Adams failed in every area of evaluation.
Shortly after he was denied promotion, Dr. Adams contacted Alliance Defending Freedom, and we filed suit on his behalf in April 2007. Among other things, the lawsuit explained how UNCW officials had retaliated against Dr. Adams because they did not like the conservative opinions he expressed in his columns.
In March 2010, the district court rejected Dr. Adams’ claims and ruled in favor of UNCW. It concluded that the First Amendment did not protect his opinion columns because he had mentioned them in his promotion application. But in 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed this decision, in a tremendous victory for academic freedom. Before sending the case back to the district court, it ruled that the First Amendment fully protects these columns and that the UNCW officials could be personally accountable for their actions.
In March 2014, after listening to the evidence from both sides for four days, a federal jury ruled that UNCW had indeed violated Dr. Adams’ First Amendment rights by retaliating against him. It concluded that Dr. Adams’ constitutionally protected speech in his columns and elsewhere was a “substantial factor” in the decision to deny him the promotion and that UNCW had not proven that it would have made the same decision if its officials had not considered his expression.
In April, the district court ruled that UNCW must promote Dr. Adams to full professor and pay him $50,000 in back pay. In May, UNCW appealed the jury verdict and the court’s ruling. In June, the district court ordered UNCW to pay Dr. Adams’ attorneys’ fees. But in July, Dr. Adams’ case concluded with a settlement agreement. In this agreement, UNCW agreed to drop its appeal. It also agreed to promote Dr. Adams to the position of full professor and pay him $50,000 in back pay as the court ordered, to adopt procedures protecting him from renewed retaliation, and to pay $615,000 in attorneys’ fees. As a result, Dr. Adams’ case serves as a powerful reminder that public universities cannot retaliate against those who simply express opinions that some officials do not like.
Our role in this case
Alliance Defending Freedom represented Dr. Adams and defended his right to express his political and religious opinions without facing unconstitutional retaliation from university officials.
If not for the free services of Alliance Defending Freedom, professors like Dr. Adams could not afford the financial costs of seeking justice in court. Please help us defend professors like him at universities across the nation with a financial contribution.