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Beware lawsuits from outspoken employees

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Public employees—people working for government agencies and state colleges and universities—don’t lose their right to free speech just because they work for the government.

Discriminating against them because of what they say or believe may be seen as “viewpoint discrimination.” And that can mean lawsuits.

Recent case: Michael Adams is a tenured associate professor at the Uni­versity of North Carolina–Wil­ming­ton, where he teaches criminology. After earning tenure, Adams ­became a Christian. His conversion changed not just his religious beliefs, but his ideological views.

He became a frequent commentator on the conservative lec­­ture circuit and wrote a book on problems facing conservative Christians on college campuses. The book, Welcome to the Ivory Tower of Babel: Con­fes­sions of a Conservative College Pro­fessor, was a collection of his essays published in newspapers and online.

Adams was turned down for a ­promotion to full professor based on inadequate scholarly publications and service to the community. Adams saw this as an effort to pun­­­ish him for his conservative Chris­­tian views. He sued.

The university argued that this case wasn’t about free speech. It likened the situation to one in which a public employee speaks out as part of his official duties. In one such case, a government attorney wrote a memo criticizing how his department was run. A court said that wasn’t protected speech, but a part of his job.

Likewise, the university argued that serving the community was part of a professor’s job and how he did that wasn’t an expression of free speech.

The court didn’t buy it. Instead, it said Adams should be able to sue for viewpoint discrimination. It said his views were protected speech. (Adams v. UNC, No. 10-1413, 4th Cir., 2011)

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