RICHMOND, Va. — A university professor who was labeled “a wannabe right-wing pundit” by a colleague urged a federal appeals court on Wednesday to revive his lawsuit claiming he was denied a promotion because of his conservative Christian views.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case of Michael Adams, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington who was denied a promotion to full professor in 2006.
Adams claims university officials violated his free-speech rights by refusing to promote him based on opinions expressed in broadcast appearances and writings, including a book and columns, that he listed to satisfy a community service component of his application.
The university maintains that a committee that reviewed Adams’ application found him lacking in scholarly research. A federal judge ruled in the university’s favor, and Adams appealed.
Adams’ attorney, David A. French, told the appeals court that the committee’s criticism of Adams’ research was a pretext for the real reasons behind the denial of the promotion — his conservative views and public criticism of the university.
“They make completely inaccurate statements on his record of scholarship,” French told the appeals court. He said Adams had published more peer-reviewed articles than most others in his department.
But Judge Paul V. Niemeyer said that while Adams’ overall publication record was good, it didn’t look like he had done much in the eight years since receiving tenure.
“I think the committee could say, ‘Look, he’s just rested on his laurels,’“ Niemeyer said.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Thomas J. Ziko said Adams’ recent research record was precisely the reason he was denied the promotion.
“This is a fairly straightforward academic review for a promotion,” Ziko said. “His peers determined he wasn’t good enough to be a full professor this time.”
A key question before the court was whether Adams could even raise a First Amendment claim related to the book, columns and comments he has made on television. The university claims that when Adams submitted those materials with his application, they were converted from constitutionally protected private speech to public speech not covered by the First Amendment.
Niemeyer questioned Ziko at length on that point, saying he wasn’t convinced that Adams surrendered protection of the content of his speech when he submitted the materials to the faculty committee for review of its scholarly merit.
“If they ruled on his writings based on his religious position or political position, they’ve got a problem,” Niemeyer said.
Adams contends that e-mails and other records of the committee’s deliberations suggest that’s exactly what they did, and a jury is entitled to consider that evidence.
Ziko said the worst comment made about Adams was that “he’s a wannabe right-wing pundit,” which he said is true.
Adams, who attended the hearing, said afterward that he was “quite stunned to see the breadth and aggressive angle the attorney general is taking” on the free-speech issue. “My jaw dropped a few times in there today,” Adams said.
The appeals court typically takes a few weeks to rule.