July 1, 2014

Federal Court Awards $720k to Conservative Professor in Anti-Discrimination Suit

By: Clark Conner

Court House

A Christian professor who sued the University of North Carolina Wilmington for discriminating against him after his conversion has been awarded more than $720,000 by a federal court as a result of the anti-discrimination lawsuit.

The lawsuit, initially filed in 2007, claims that the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington wrongfully denied Dr. Adams a promotion to full professor status, and that he was subject to meritless investigations that were intended to defame his character. This mistreatment was because “he exercised his First Amendment rights in a manner that [the] Defendants disliked,” according to counsel for Dr. Adams.

Adams was hired by UNCW in 1993 as an assistant professor of criminology.  He quickly earned praise for his performance in teaching, advising, research, and service (the four components of an annual evaluation) from the then co-chairs of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, Drs. Steven McNamee and Cecil Willis. McNamee complimented Adams at his 1994 evaluation for serving on four department committees in addition to his already heavy workload. He was nominated by Willis to the 1996 Who’s Who Among College Teachers award; an award that he would go on to receive twice.

In short, Adams was becoming a model professor, and it wasn’t just the senior faculty at UNCW who were taking notice. Adams was also well-liked by his students. In fact, McNamee told Adams during an annual interview that he had the “highest teaching evaluations in department history.” In 1997, he earned the “highest research ratings in the department,” and his research was voted “outstanding” by his colleagues.

He was promoted to associate professor in 1998 at the recommendation of Dean Jo Ann Seiple, who stated that Adams was an “emerging scholar.” In 2000, he received the 2000 Who’s Who Among College Teachers award for the second time, and was designated by the Dean of Students Office as the Faculty Member of the year for the second time.

But 2000 was a significant year in the personal life of Adams. The self-described liberal atheist had a religious experience, and would eventually subscribe to a more conservative ideology. It is because of this change that Adams claims he was the recipient of undue discrimination.

After this transition, Adams began to speak up about a “lack of ideological diversity” at UNCW. This resulted in Lynn Snowden, Faculty Senate President in 2000, to remove him from the Faculty Senate mailing list. Coincidentally, this same Snowden would accuse Adams of a hate crime in 2001. After a six-year investigation, police closed the case saying her claims were unsubstantiated.

The major fireworks, however, began on September 17, 2001, when he received an open email from a student who happened to be the daughter of a UNCW professor of Psychology. This email addressed to “The students and faculty of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington” blamed the 9/11 terror attack on the World Trade Center on American foreign policy, and asked that the email recipients forward it to other contacts.

Adams did forward the email to other contacts, and promptly responded to the student’s email saying it was “undeserving of serious consideration.” This student, Rosa Fuller, and her mother, Patti Turrisi asked the university to open an investigation of Adams for “verbally abusing” Ms. Fuller.

The complaint, which was filed by Ms. Fuller on September 20, 2001, claimed that Adams had “berated [her], with no substance of an argument, with abusive epithets.” She demanded that Dr. Adams release the identity of individuals to whom he had forwarded the email, and asked the university to block his email account. Ms. Fuller would eventually accuse Adams of libel, as well.

The issue in play was whether or not Dr. Adams’ emails were considered public or private. Since he refused to reveal the recipients of the forwarded email, the only way for Ms. Fuller to learn the identities of these recipients was for the university to confiscate the emails.

Less than a week after the investigation was opened, UNCW’s legal team informed Ms. Fuller that the forwarded emails are “either not public record or are protected from disclosure by the personnel records exemption to the Public Records Act or by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.”

Investigations of this incident ensued over the next few years, though none found Dr. Adams to be wrong in his actions. The positive remarks from his superiors during annual evaluations also continued. In spite of being wrongfully accused of abuse, libel, a hate crime, and even being told he could not discuss his nationally syndicated columns because they angered department secretary Mrs. Donna Dugan, he continued to function at a high level.

So high a level, in fact, that it was a surprise when his second application for promotion to full professor was denied without reason (the first request was ignored) in September, 2006. After requesting a reason for the denied promotion in writing three times, Dr. Adams finally received a written notice saying that he was “insufficient” in the fields of research, service, and academic expertise.

Nearly five months later, Adams filed discrimination charges against the board of trustees with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) Raleigh Area Office. The EEOC returned a letter to Adams informing him he had 90 days to file suit.

District Judge Malcom J. Howard presided over the case, and on March 15, 2010 ruled in favor of the UNCW board of trustees. But the ruling was appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and in July, 2010 an amicus brief was filed by the Association of University Professors, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression on behalf of Dr. Adams.

The Fourth Circuit took the case, and in April, 2011 it reversed part of the ruling and remanded it back to the District Court in North Carolina. The second time around, the court ruled in favor of Adams. The awarded $720,000 is to cover costs incurred by Adams as a result of the suit.

UNCW plans to appeal the court’s decision.

 Clark Conner is a writer based in North Carolina. Courthouse image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.