"One student offered the example of gay marriage as something that Rawls' Equal Liberty Principle would allow because it would not restrict the liberty of others and therefore should not be illegal," according to Holtz's version of events. "Ms. Abbate noted that this was a correct way to apply Rawls' Principle and is said to have asked 'does anyone not agree with this?' Ms. Abbate later added that if anyone did not agree that gay marriage was an example of something that fits the Rawls' Equal Liberty Principle, they should see her after class."
Sure enough, a student approached her after class, and in what was arguably an ethical breach, surreptitiously recorded their exchange. It is transcribed in Holtz's letter. Here's a slightly condensed version. I've boldfaced the part of the exchange that I'll focus on:
Student: I have to be completely honest with you, I don't agree with gay marriage. There have been studies that show that children that are brought up in gay households do a lot worse in life such as test scores, in school, and in the real world. So, when you completely dismiss an entire argument based off of your personal views, it sets a precedent for the classroom that "oh my God, this is so wrong; you can't agree with this, you're a horrible person if you agree with this." And that's what came off. And I have to say I am very personally offended by that.
Student: And I would stress for you in your professional career going forward, you're going to be teaching for many more years, that you watch how you approach those issues because when you set a precedent like that because you are the authority figure in the classroom, people truly do listen to you.
Abbate: Ok, I'm going to stop you right there. The question was about gay marriage. So, if you're going to bring statistics up about ... you know single people can adopt children, right? You don't have to be married.
Abbate: So gay marriage has nothing to do with the adoption of children.
Student: I know and one of the reasons why I'm against gay marriage is because that gay couples are allowed to adopt.
Abbate: Ok. Do you realize as an individual you can adopt a child on your own and then have a relationship with someone? Even if it's not legal.
Student: Absolutely, and I'm not in agreement with that.
Abbate: I don't think gay marriage has ... First of all, I would really question those statistics.
Student: I'll send them to you.
Abbate: So, any research that you're going to have I'm really going to question it because there is a significant amount of pure research that says otherwise, but even setting that aside, the question is about gay marriage itself. It's not about adoption of children ...
Student: Absolutely, but there are different reasons why you can disagree with gay marriage.
Abbate: So, gay marriage isn't banned—granting people license to have children, it has nothing to do with that? Do people have people a right to marry someone of the same sex ...
Student: Regardless of why I'm against gay marriage, it's still wrong for the teacher of a class to completely discredit one person's opinion when they may have different opinions.
Abbate: Ok, there are some opinions that are not appropriate that are harmful, such as racist opinions, sexist opinions, and quite honestly, do you know if anyone in the class is homosexual?
Student: No, I don't.
Abbate: And don't you think that that would be offensive to them if you were to raise your hand and challenge this?
Student: If I choose to challenge this, it's my right as an American citizen.
Abbate: Ok, well, actually you don't have a right in this class, as ... especially as an ethics professor, to make homophobic comments, racist comments, sexist comments ...
Student: Homophobic comments? They're not. I'm not saying that gays, that one guy can't like another girl or something like that. Or, one guy can't like another guy.
Abbate: This is about restricting rights and liberties of individuals ... and just as I would take offense if women can't serve in XYZ positions because that is a sexist comment.
Student: I don't have any problem with women saying that. I don't have any problem with women joining anything like that.
Abbate: No, I'm saying that if you are going to make a comment like that, it would be similar to making a ...
Abbate: How I would experience would be similar to how someone who is in this room and who is homosexual who would experience someone criticizing this.
Student: Ok, so because they are homosexual I can't have my opinions? And it's not being offensive towards them because I am just having my opinions on a very broad subject.
Abbate: You can have whatever opinions you want but I can tell you right now, in this class homophobic comments, racist comments, and sexist comments will not be tolerated. If you don't like that you are more than free to drop this class.
Student: So, are you saying that not agreeing with gay marriage is homophobic?
Abbate: To argue that individuals should not have rights is going to be
offensive to someone in this class.
Student: I'm not saying rights, I'm saying one single right. Ok? So is that what you're saying? Are you saying that if I don't agree with gays not being allowed to get married, that I am homophobic?
Abbate: I'm saying that it would come off as a homophobic comment in this class.
Student: That's not what you said two minutes ago. Two seconds ago, you just said that is a homophobic comment to disagree with gay marriage.
Abbate: No, the example that I gave was in this class, if you were going to make a comment about the restriction of the rights of women, such as saying that women can't serve ... Are you videotaping or taping this conversation?
Abbate: Can I see your phone?
Student: Oh, I am. I'm going to be showing it to your superiors.
Abbate: Ok, go ahead.
At this point, both the undergraduate and the grad student instructor spoke to various "superiors" about the incident. And the undergrad talked to McAdams, who decided to blog about it. He has been stripped of tenure for that blog post.