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A professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington has recently sparked outrage with his words on Twitter, the latest educator to draw a rebuke from his own school.

Mike Adams, a professor of criminology at UNCW, said people who wear masks in public look like "fools," has called North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper a "fascist" (among other criticisms) for Cooper's response to the coronavirus pandemic, labeled women's studies a "nonessential major" and pushed for the separation of states from the county. 

That was just in May. 

Of the shutdowns caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Adams tweeted, “This evening I ate pizza and drank beer with six guys at a six seat table top. I almost felt like a free man who was not living in the slave state of North Carolina."

Adams, who is white, ended the tweet with: "Massa Cooper, let my people go!” 

His tweets sparked severalChange.orgpetitions with thousands of signatures calling for Adams' removal from the university, and UNCW issued a statement calling Adams’ tweets “vile.”

Still, Adams has his job, UNCW confirmed to USA TODAY. Adams did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The university invoked the First Amendment in its statement, but added, “These comments may be protected, but that is not an excuse for how vile they are. We stand firmly against these and all other expressions of hatred. We cannot and will not ignore them. The university is reviewing all options in terms of addressing the matter.”

Personal opinions, not in the classroom

As it turns out, there aren’t many options for the university, according to First Amendment experts.

Adams isn't the first professor to generate backlash with tweets, either.

Last year, Indiana University didn't fire a professor whose tweets were called "vile and stupid" by the university's provost. Clay Calvert of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida told USA TODAY. 

“Even though his specific comments are racist and offensive, the larger subject matter is a matter of public concern,” Calvert said, referring to Adams. “Therefore, he is going to have some First Amendment protection, but it’s not unlimited.” 

Because Adams used his personal Twitter account, he has more First Amendment rights, Calvert said.

“The first thing you’d have to ask is, is the public employee speaking in his official job capacity or role? If so, then the First Amendment speech rights are very limited," Calvert said, adding, "If he had made a comment like that in the classroom, then the only way it would be protected would be if it was ‘germane’ to the subject matter.”

Calvert said the university could fire Adams – a stronger statement than just condemning the tweets, he said.

"But the repercussions would be a lawsuit that (the university) would have to defend," Calvert said.

The Wilmington Star-News reported Adams has already sued UNCW once. In 2007, Adams filed a lawsuit saying he was denied a promotion when he spoke about his views, violating his First Amendment rights, the newspaper reported. After a court ruled in favor of Adams, UNCW appealed, then eventually settled the case. 

Comments that reflect 'actual bias'

David Hudson Jr., a fellow for the First Amendment at the Freedom Forum Institute, said a professor’s right to free speech is strong. Citizens, however, have the right to retain their own beliefs, he said. 

“Now, if those comments do reflect actual bias perpetrated against students, or the professor is violating generally applicable principles and discriminating against students specifically, that’s another issue," Hudson said.

He added, "But, the First Amendment imposes pretty strict limitations on universities attempting to punish professors for controversial speech. After all, that’s the point of the First Amendment — it’s designed to protect offensive, obnoxious or even repugnant speech. The Supreme Court has termed that a bedrock principle of the First Amendment."

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