Revolution #158, March 8, 2009

Ward Churchill Lawsuit Against University of Colorado Begins March 9th

The jury trial for Ward Churchill’s lawsuit against the University of Colorado (CU) is scheduled to begin in Denver District Court on March 9th. Churchill was a tenured professor and chairman of the ethnic studies department at CU-Boulder when he was fired by the CU Board of Regents in July, 2007, supposedly for research misconduct. The lawsuit charges that Churchill was in fact fired in retaliation for writing a controversial essay about the 9/11 attacks.

As readers of Revolution are aware, this case began in early 2005 when Ward Churchill was the target of a highly orchestrated, nationwide political witch-hunt by two powerful Republican governors and other politicians and right-wing forces after an essay he’d written shortly after 9/11 came to light. In that piece Churchill described the attack on the World Trade Center as an example of “chickens coming home to roost,” and compared the business operatives working in the WTC serving “America’s global financial empire” to “little Eichmanns.” 1

Right away Bill Owens, Republican governor of Colorado at the time, called for the University to fire Churchill because of these remarks. And the university conducted an investigation to see if Churchill should be fired—or jailed—for what he’d written. Concluding that his writings were protected speech, the university switched tactics and announced that Churchill would be investigated for academic misconduct instead.

The administration pulled together a collection of old charges and disputes made over the years about minor elements of Churchill’s large body of work, and claimed they amounted to serious academic misconduct. Despite the fact that it was clear the only reason Churchill was being investigated was because of his political statements, a faculty committee agreed to do the dirty work of carrying out an academic inquisition. Their findings of “research misconduct,” which have been called a sham by those who have taken the time to study them, were used by the University President and Board of Regents as a pretext for a blatantly political firing. [For more on the history of this case, see Revolution Issue #92, and Issue #98].

Natsu Saito, Professor of Law and wife of Churchill, wrote in a November, 2008 update: “This is a classic ‘pretext’ case in which CU has come up with claims of ‘research misconduct’ to fire Ward for speech protected by the First Amendment.  Simply put:

  1. CU never would have investigated but for Ward's "controversial" speech;
  2. CU didn't have any actual complaints, so they solicited and invented them;
  3. the evidence didn't support CU's findings; and
  4. even if the allegations were true, they aren't things tenured professors ever get fired for... except in politically motivated cases.”

In preparation for the trial, Churchill’s attorney David Lane questioned ex-governor Owens in a deposition released February 5th. In it Owens admits that he told the University to fire Churchill because of the content of the essay. And he also admits that if they HAD fired him for that reason it would have violated Churchill’s free-speech rights. But according to Owens, the university “didn’t follow my advice and, in fact, chose to ignore it.” Therefore, Owens claims, even though the University went ahead and fired him, using the pretext of academic misconduct, there’s no basis to say as Churchill does that he was fired because of “pressure from the top.” 2

Students Build Support on Campus

Student organizations on the Boulder campus have been organizing support and raising funds for Churchill’s upcoming lawsuit. And they are calling for students and other supporters to come to the opening day of the trial. On March 3rd members of Students for True Academic Freedom (STAF) erected a 3-foot-by-3-foot cage labeled “Free Speech,” and took turns making their case for Professor Churchill from inside the cage.

STAF and two other student groups—Student Environmental Action Coalition and 180 Degree Shift at the 11th Hour—have also organized an event for March 5th , “Forbidden Education and the Rise of Neo-McCarthyism.” The event will feature William Ayers, Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago; and activist and author Derrick Jensen. Ayers was the repeated target of right wing forces, including vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, during the recent election campaign. Churchill will join them for a question-and-answer session.

Aaron Smith, member of STAF and recent CU graduate, told the Rocky Mountain News “What we’re trying to show with this event is that Ward Churchill is not alone in this… These speakers are going to put (Churchill’s) case into the political context of an attack on academic freedom on a national scale.” 3 In an act that shows the University is not yet finished trying to intimidate those who defy them, they have told the students they are being charged $3,000 for the cost of providing “security” for their program.

Centerpiece of a Much Broader Assault

The attack on Churchill has been the centerpiece of a much broader assault on critical thinking and dissent in academia by right wing media mouth-pieces, and by self-appointed academic censors, out to intimidate and silence especially scholars whose research questions and challenges official myths about this country’s history, and its role in the world. Churchill’s scholarship has done both—bringing to light the genocide of the Native people by the European settlers; and exposing the repression against domestic political opponents during the height of the 60s.

In the update referred to above, Professor Saito wrote: “Why fight this particular injustice? We're doing it because Ward has become a symbol of what academic freedom and the right to political dissent mean in this country, in these times… every week we hear of professors being fired, or intimidated into changing what they teach.  And students who believe everything they hear on the TV ‘news.’  For real change to happen, the next generation will have to know how to think critically.  That won't happen—regardless of who's in the White House—unless we defend the First Amendment in practice, not just in theory. The chilling effect of CU's actions are very real.  If rightwing forces don't encounter resistance to this firing, they will consider it license to constrict freedom of expression even more.”

From the very beginning Churchill has refused to back down in the face of open intimidation and vicious and ugly threats, and attempts to destroy his academic career and his reputation. His courageous and determined stand has inspired many others—faculty and scholars and students—to do the same. Many more people—faculty and students and from all arenas of society—need to condemn this whole railroad and join the battle to support Churchill, and the universities as places where critical thinking and dissent are valued and encouraged.



1 Adolf Eichmann was a Nazi, put in charge of the trains that carried Jews to the death camps in Poland during WW II. After the war he was captured in Argentina, brought to Israel for trial, and executed. [back]

2 “Ward Churchill, Bill Owens tangle again,” Lynn Bartels, Rocky Mountain News, 2/6/09 [back]

3 “Bill Ayers coming to CU to defend Ward Churchill,” Lance Vaillancourt, Rocky Mountain News, 2/20/09 [back]

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