The Ward Churchill Case: New Attacks and New Challenges

Revolutionary Worker #1274, April 10, 2005, posted at

Ward Churchill, the tenured professor and former chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Colorado in Boulder, has been the object of a witch-hunt for several months. Right-wing commentators fastened on an essay critical of U.S. empire and its history of genocide that Churchill wrote three years ago—this in the wake of 9/11—and launched a vicious attack on him. Mainstream media amplified the character assassination. And various political figures stepped in, including the governors of Colorado and New York, who called for Churchill's firing.

On March 24, the assault on Churchill and critical thinking took a dangerous new turn with the release of a report of findings by a committee headed by the chancellor of the University of Colorado. The report calls for the investigation of "research misconduct" by Churchill. During that same week, the university system's Board of Regents voted to form a committee to review the process by which tenure is granted to professors (a move that is ultimately aimed at undermining job protection to professors deemed politically unacceptable). Taken together, these two developments represent a ratcheting up of a concerted assault on colleges and universities as places where critical thinking and dissent have some initiative in U.S. society.

The Churchill case is being used by right-wing and powerful ruling-class forces to rule ideas that question the fabric of U.S. society and that challenge the U.S. role in the world as beyond the pale of acceptable discourse. The larger objective of this campaign is nothing less than to turn the universities into zones of uncontested indoctrination— and to start by purging the universities of radical thinkers, while intimidating broader sections of academia.


Last December a group of right-wing faculty and students with ties to David Horowitz, who has been spearheading a nationwide campaign to smear and persecute progressive and radical academicians, protested Churchill's appearance as an invited speaker at Hamilton College. They dug up Churchill's essay "Some People Push Back —On the Justice of Roosting Chickens" in which he argued that the 9/11 attacks could not be understood apart from the actions of the United States in the world and said that people working at the World Trade Center were implicated in the crimes of American empire. These right-wing forces initiated a campaign to limit Churchill's right to speak, to deny him the right to teach or pursue an academic career at all, and targeted faculty members, university officials, and student organizations who invited Churchill to speak, or who dared stand up for his right to be heard. (For a full account, see "The Witch-Hunt Against Ward Churchill," RW 1268, 2/20/05.)

The Colorado Board of Regents responded to those leveling the slanders against Churchill by offering a shameless "apology." The chancellor of the University at Boulder bowed to pressure and announced the formation of a three-person committee to conduct "a thorough examination of Professor Churchill's writings, speeches, tape recordings and other works." The purpose of this examination, as stated by Chancellor DiStefano, was "to determine whether Professor Churchill may have overstepped his bounds as a faculty member, showing cause for dismissal.." The report from this committee was issued on March 24.


This report is worth considering, both for what it says, and for what is implied by it. (The document, "Report on Conclusion of Preliminary Review in the Matter of Professor Ward Churchill," is available online at churchill/report.html)

First of all, such an investigation of a scholar's work is completely illegitimate. And on top of this, the criteria applied are outrageous: "Did certain statements by Professor Churchill," the report asks in its primary focus, "exceed the boundaries of a public employee's constitutionally protected speech?" The committee found that they did not, according to the standard of whether Churchill's statements were "inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to produce such action." This is often called the "Brandenburg test" (named after a particular case). Invoking the Brandenburg test in response to hysterical charges by right- wing "thought vigilantes"—and raising the spectre of unprotected and prosecutable speech—is very chilling. Not to mention ridiculous on the face of it, since the articles and speeches vetted were two and three years old—while the only real threats of impending violence have been coming from the forces threatening Ward Churchill.

There never was any question that the quotations and citations from Churchill brought forward by his attackers had anything to do with incitement to imminent violence. The message is clear. If you dare speak out against the crimes of empire or advance a radical critique of U.S. society, your words may be sifted through, taken out of context, and labeled treasonous. In other words, "Watch what you say." This is the atmosphere of intimidation that these right-wing forces are trying to create on campuses—as part of a larger strategy of exacting enforced obedience and thought control throughout society.

The chancellor's committee report then turns to what it calls matters of "research misconduct" and "fraudulent misrepresentation" and introduces new allegations that had nothing to do with the original charges, or the ostensible reasons for the formation of the committee in the first place. The report poses the question of "whether it is now proper to pursue possible action for alleged misconduct identified in the course of this review." It answers with an emphatic "yes" and instructs a faculty committee to investigate allegations of fraudulent scholarship.

It's important to see beneath the camouflage and deception here, and the attempts both to legitimize the witch- hunt against Ward Churchill and to confuse people and drive away allies by raising the specter of "cheating" in Churchill's scholarship. It's also important to recognize that it has been the right-wing think tanks and legal institutes and the likes of David Horowitz that have pushed for this line of attack on Churchill.

To be clear, none of these charges of scholarly misconduct would have been raised were it not for Churchill's political views. Nor is this political attack any more justified on account of new charges being thrown into the hopper. And what does it mean for someone's life scholarship to be dissected in an atmosphere of prosecution and persecution? This is not the way in which fellow scholars look into questions of research and scholarship.

It is safe to say that in anyone's research and scholarship, Ward Churchill's or otherwise, there are things that can be contested; and research and intellectual work are an ongoing process of review, deepening, and correction. Scholarly work proceeds through thrashing things out, contesting, arguing, and wrangling. Anyone engaged in scholarship or in the academic world has seen, or been involved in, what can sometimes become quite intense battles on points of interpretation of historical, scientific, or other data. Some of the allegations cited in the chancellor's report are concerned with just such differences of interpretation. But these matters are not being battled out in the normal channels of academic discourse. Again, this is a completely illegitimate enterprise. a witch-hunt.

It is no accident that many of the allegations of fraud turn precisely on matters of research and analysis (well- established and documented) that these right-wing forces consider to be politically unacceptable, indeed heretical. They are seeking, for instance, to discredit, through any means they can, scholarship revealing and explaining how genocide is a fact of America's historical development.

And there is yet another allegation: that Churchill "misrepresented his ethnicity"—that, as one newspaper account put it, he has "falsely claimed to be an American Indian." What are we to make of this charge? It was brought forward 10 years ago and Churchill's self-identification and academic representation were affirmed by the university. Now it is being recycled, and some way is found to bring it under the category of "research misconduct."


Opposition and resistance to the attack on Churchill have been growing. Earlier this year, students and faculty at both the University of Hawaii and the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater went ahead with plans to have Churchill speak, this in the face of the kinds of threats that caused other colleges to back down and disinvite him. (See "Hawaiian Professors Defy the Witch-Hunt," RW #1270, March 13, 2005.) Students and faculty at Eastern Washington University have organized protests.

Petitions opposing the attack have been circulated and resolutions passed by academic organizations and bodies at several colleges and universities. Two hundred University of Colorado faculty members signed a statement, "In Defense of Freedom of Speech," opposing the investigation of Churchill, and published it as an ad in the local newspaper in Boulder. Ethnic studies professors in California initiated a statement of support. Significantly, over 400 distinguished scholars and administrators from across the country have signed an "Open Letter to Defend Dissent and Critical Thinking on Campus." It calls for an immediate halt to the spurious investigation of Churchill. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education , "They argued that the attacks by politicians and the news media against Mr. Churchill smacked of a new McCarthyism." The Chronicle quoted from the Open Letter: "Apparently September 11 is now the third rail of American intellectual life: to critically probe into its causes and to interrogate the international role of the United States is treated as heresy." This too was published in the Boulder newspaper.

The level of resistance, though, must be much higher if this attack—both in the Churchill case and more broadly- -is to truly be met and turned back. And turned back it must be. Right now, the right-wing forces have the initiative; they are setting the terms. They are already having an effect, putting some professors under the gun, causing others to pull back and keep quiet, and trying to create a chill around critical and dissident thought. They will not let up; their goal is uncontested domination. They must be stopped.