In case you haven’t noticed, the First Amendment has been taking a beating on college campuses. More and more schools are placing limits on what activities students and professors can engage in. Private and public universities are holding students and professors to “codes of conduct” that in many ways limit their rights to free speech. The University of Minnesota for example, warned students about offensive Halloween costumes. The University of North Carolina took it one step further, admonishing students that satirical flyers making fun of school-issued flyers that warned students not to wear offensive Halloween costumes was “unprofessional.” On a more serious note, Montclair State University penalized the Montclair Students for Justice in Palestine organization five percent of its semester budget and ordered the group to cease all political activity after receiving complaints that the group had handed out “political” and “offensive” pamphlets; the group was also admonished that it was only to focus on Palestinian culture and not to take positions on political issues. (One wonders how you can focus on Palestinian culture and not discuss political issues). More examples of the restriction of free speech rights on university campuses are documented on the excellent website thefire.org.
So any victory for the First amendment in academia is noteworthy. Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit overturned a lower court’s dismissal of Adjunct Professor Robin Meade’s lawsuit against Moraine Valley Community College in a decision that will be helpful for adjunct professors throughout the Seventh Circuit’s jurisdiction, which includes the states of Illinois (where Moraine Valley is located), Indiana, and Wisconsin.
Professor Meade had the audacity to write to the League for Innovation in the Community College about her employer. Meade, an adjunct faculty member at the school, leveled multiple charges at the college regarding its poor treatment of adjuncts. These practices, she charged in the letter, harmed the school’s students. Two days later, Moraine Valley fired Meade sending her a written notice explicitly citing Meade’s letter as the reason for its action.
Meade filed a Federal Civil Rights claim against the school which the lower court dismissed. The judge below ruled that Meade’s letter was addressing her private concern about her job and not written to address a public interest at large. Furthermore, the lower court held, the State of Illinois is an “at will” state so Meade had no right to a job and therefore no property interest to protect. In dealing with the latter issue, the Seventh Circuit held that because Meade had already been given a schedule of classes for her to teach , office hours, etc., that was a protectable interest. In dealing with the former issue, the court held that merely because Meade might benefit from a change in policy or that she was personally subject to some of the policies she deemed wrongful did not mean that her letter was purely personal or that it did not address matters of public concern. The court noted that she wrote the letter in her capacity as president of the Moraine Valley Adjunct Faculty Organization, the union representing adjuncts at the school. It held that it could not be seriously disputed that the objective or overall point of the letter was to address matters of public interest.
This decision is a welcome acknowledgement that folks don’t lose their First amendment rights when they decide to go into academia. Of course, you would expect the exact opposite to be true. That is, that institutions committed to broadening the minds of our nation’s young people would be more careful in limiting their professors’ rights to be heard and to address matters of concern at their own school. Professor Meade now gets her day in court to prove her case and speak her mind.