A judge ruled against all of Associate Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Michael McAlear’s charges against the University on Tuesday, Feb. 18, effectively closing the case. McAlear told The Argus that he does not plan to appeal the ruling.
McAlear filed the lawsuit against the University in May 2019. The suit alleged, among other charges, that the University had breached its contract with him by failing to hold students accountable when they hung posters around the University’s campus that put his face and name—along with those of two other professors—alongside text that read, “Reject sexual predators emboldened by institutional power.” Later, his legal filing was amended to further allege that the University had defamed him by failing to take sufficient action against those who had hung the posters. He sought compensation for damage to his reputation.
The judge found the University not responsible on all counts.
“Wesleyan argued that my reputation doesn’t have value, and admittedly I could not show that I lost my salary or that there was a specific monetary damages to all of these false accusations,” McAlear said in an interview with The Argus. “But I disagree with the ruling. And our reputations are of value, and we go to great lengths to advertise and promote our reputations.”
The University declined to comment.
Adam Steinbaugh has been closely following the case from his role as a lawyer and director at Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonpartisan foundation committed to defending individual rights on college campuses. Steinbaugh spoke with The Argus about the ruling and potential ramifications of the judge’s decision.
“I think that the court generally got things right here and that universities and colleges should not be responsible, legally, for the speech of their constituents because that would incentivize the administrations of universities and colleges to clamp down on speech as a means of protecting the university,” Steinbaugh said.
Still, Steinbaugh believes that this case may cause universities to become stricter when regulating speech. According to McAlear’s filing, the University made efforts to find the students responsible.
“The court reached that conclusion in finding that Wesleyan was not responsible by citing the University’s efforts to investigate, and to remove the flyers and posters, and to identify the people that put them up,” Steinbaugh said. “The court found that the speech itself was defamatory, so defamatory speech is not protected by the First Amendment, but it’s not hard to imagine institutions having a conflict of interest in making the determination of whether or not the speech is protected in these circumstances.”
McAlear says that his case is about faculty rights and that the University’s employees should be aware if the Faculty Handbook isn’t being taken seriously.
“I believe the University really doesn’t respect—and it’s clear from what they argued with their lawyers—they don’t respect faculty’s rights or faculty’s reputations, and I feel like all the faculty should know that,” McAlear said.
Steinbaugh argued that the University should amend its handbooks in order to better protect themselves against further lawsuits.
“I think that the University would be better positioned if they took a look at their policies and their commitments concerning free speech, and made them more robust, because if they had a more robust policy commitment to freedom of speech, it’d be easier to point at that and to say, ‘Look, we disclaim the ability to control speech on our campus, therefore we can’t be held liable for the speech that occurs,’” Steinbaugh said. “That might be a way to protect themselves in the future, rather than having to say, ‘Look, we investigated it, we tried to suppress the speech.’”
Hannah Reale can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @HannahEReale.