Professor’s article about gay Muslim student ignites a free speech debate

UNC Wilmington professor Mike Adams, shown here in a 2005 photo, has come under fire from a recent social media post.
UNC Wilmington professor Mike Adams, shown here in a 2005 photo, has come under fire from a recent social media post.

When a UNC Wilmington professor posted an online article about a student activist under the title “A ‘Queer Muslim’ Jihad,” was it harassment or free speech?

That’s the central question surrounding a controversy that has boiled for weeks at UNCW. Mike Adams, a well-known conservative and professor of sociology and criminology, has been sharply criticized by faculty, student leaders and others, who say his September article on conservative web site The Daily Wire about 19-year-old Nada Merghani was out of bounds – an inappropriate way for a professor to treat a student. Merghani has since left UNCW and plans to enroll at UNC Charlotte in the spring.

As a result, two online petitions are focused on the professor – one calling for Adams to be fired (4,300 signatures), the other standing behind his First Amendment speech rights (200 signatures). A benefit concert dubbed “Hate-Free By the Sea” is planned for Dec. 18 at the Throne Theater in Wilmington.

In a post on the social media site Tumblr, Merghani wrote that she had been harassed by Adams since her freshman year, culminating in the “Jihad” article. The article identified Merghani by name, describing a situation earlier this year when she was interviewed by the Secret Service when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke on campus. Merghani, Adams wrote, had posted to Facebook about the Trump rally, writing, “Y’all are not prepared for what I’m about to do.”

Adams’ article mocked Merghani as a “queer Muslim social justice warrior” but said she presented no threat to Trump. “In my view, she simply lacks the intellectual coherence to form any sort of rational plan – including, but not limited to, killing a presidential candidate,” he wrote. Likening the student to a woman who shot at former President Gerald Ford in 1975, Adams wrote: “She comes across sort of like Squeaky Fromme minus the handgun and resolve.”

Neither Adams nor Merghani returned calls seeking comment.

Student and faculty leaders have condemned Adams’ writing.

“We are appalled and disgusted by the recent article posted by Mike Adams,” Student Body President Dan McCord wrote on the UNCW student government Facebook page. “While we don’t understand the need for a highly educated adult to devote his time to bullying a young college student, we do understand the dark reality that this student has faced in light of the unrelenting statements over their time here. ... It is shameful to use rhetoric as a means to demonize and degrade somebody in such a manner.”

Merghani has written that the situation led to death threats against her on Facebook.

“Almost all of these people being 40+ year old white men doing this to a 19 year old girl,” she wrote. “I tried to talk to my university about this and let them know that I was tired of having to defend myself, my name, my sexuality, my religion, my EVERYTHING from a professor who is in a higher position of power over me and they told me they couldn’t do anything because he’d just sue the university. And I’m just tired. I’m really, really tired.”

Lightning rod

Adams has long been a lightning rod at UNCW, and he is a prolific blogger and social media presence, expressing conservative views and disdaining political correctness. He has 14,000 followers on Twitter, where he fires off zingers like this: “You can be coddled or you can be free. You cannot be both” and “Dear UNCW: He made us think. Fire him! Love, Social Justice Warriors p.s. Hurry up so we can get back to burning down our own neighborhoods.”

In 2014, Adams settled a lawsuit with UNCW, after claiming that the university did not promote him because of his political and religious views. He received $50,000 in back pay, hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees, a raise and promotion to full professor.

Adams tweeted praise for UNCW Chancellor Zito Sartarelli in mid-November, saying he “stands up for free speech.”

Sartarelli had sent a post-election message to the campus. “Our students and faculty have the right to share their opinions, both on and off campus,” he said. “We as an institution do not, and should not, regulate or respond to those opinions. There is often misinformation involved, unfortunately, and even language many would consider ugly, but this comes with the territory of free and open expression.”

Sartarelli also said freedom of expression doesn’t supersede safety and encouraged anyone who felt truly threatened to report it.

Days later, Sartarelli posted to Facebook, taking a different tone: “Let me be clear: speech that is legal can also be hurtful. It deeply saddens me to see freedom of expression used as a weapon to degrade or demonize (as a student said to me earlier). Our values of dignity, diversity and inclusiveness are critical to our campus culture.”

A UNCW spokesman said last week that “the matter” with Adams had been fully investigated, without referring to the professor by name, saying the university had done “all we are able to do to support the student involved, given that the comments were not made in a UNCW living, learning or working environment or otherwise affiliated with the faculty member’s role at UNCW.”

Faculty Senate leaders issued a statement, saying “public remarks by professors about a student’s race, color, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, age, disability, political affiliation, or sexual orientation are inconsistent with our values.”

Stephen Meinhold, Senate president and political science professor, said the statement wasn’t intended to discourage free expression.

“We wouldn’t have imagined that we would have to tell our colleagues that they shouldn’t make public statements about students in the media, on social media or anyplace for that matter,” he said Thursday, adding, “Look, this is not desirable. It’s just not consistent with the professional standards of a faculty member to make public statements about our students.”

Respect Compact

Sartarelli has said the university is in the process of revising a document called the Seahawk Respect Compact, which “demonstrates our aspirational commitment to a respectful, safe environment for our students.” The compact is not a policy.

Mike Allen of Wake Forest, who is organizing the benefit concert, said he hopes to raise awareness of the issue.

“This guy has a started a conversation that needs to be had, and that is where do you overstep your bounds as a faculty member?” he said. “If you’re in a position of power, and you’re a 52-year-old man and you’re using this platform that you have to bully and harass a 19-year-old student, that’s a line that has been crossed.”

Adams apparently started a new blog last week called “Rightly Offended.” His first post, titled “Choosing My Words Carefully,” was addressed to the California State University-Bakersfield Black Student Union. Some students had objected to a recent anti-abortion speech he made on the campus, titled “All Lives Matter.”

“If you don’t like the words I choose then do the right thing and respond with better speech, not with censorship,” he wrote. “Free speech is the ultimate pro-choice position. And I am always in favor of choice as long as it doesn’t harm an innocent human being.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill