Ward Churchill, the controversial former professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has won an important verdict in court. A jury found that he had been wrongly terminated by the university after his public repudiation for referring to the victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks as “little Eichmanns.”
The university dismissed Churchill in 2007, but not for the article. While the governor and many other politicians called for his firing, a board of professors correctly ruled that academic freedom and free speech principles barred the ethnic studies professor’s termination over his article. Instead, it fired him plagiarism in his research. However, Churchill argued that this was simply a pretense and that he was fired for his political views.
The 2002 essay was entitled, “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens” and focused on U.S. foreign policy. In the essay, Churchill compares the victims to Nazi Adolf Eichmann, saying that they were “little Eichmanns” who were the “technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire.”
The verdict will likely lead to Churchill’s demand for restatement. Notably, the jury awarded Churchill only $1, a surprising and interesting decision in light of its finding of wrongful termination. However, District Court Chief Judge Larry J. Naves gave both sides 30 days to present motions before he rules on whether Churchill will get his job back or will receive back pay.
The degree of national pressure placed on the university to fire Churchill made many academics feel uncomfortable. He was hardly a sympathetic character for most professors but there seemed little question that the scrutiny over his scholarship was prompted by the controversy. Academic freedom and tenure are critical parts of our academic system to allow professors to challenge orthodoxy and majoritarian views. Bad ideas are defeated through reasoned debate not punitive actions within the academic community. Many faculty around the country felt that the university president moved too quickly and too eagerly to accommodate the public outrage and that the later termination had the look of a pretext.
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