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Ward Churchill Was Fired For His Opinions

October 28, 2012

[The following Guest Commentary by Don Eron—written with the support of the Executive Committee of the Colorado AAUP—was originally submitted to The Denver Post  in response to the paper’s house editorial expressing thanks that the Colorado Supreme Court rejected Ward Churchill’s appeal of a lower court’s decision upholding his firing by the University of Colorado.  The commentary wasn’t accepted by The Post because, as explained by the paper’s Barbara Ellis, “We don’t typically accept full-length commentaries as rebuttals to published content, otherwise that’s all we’d have room to run.”  Don was invited to distill the piece into a 150 word letter, or else rewrite the commentary without rebutting The Post. Neither option struck us as viable because 150 words isn’t enough to convey the piece’s meaning and because the commentary refers to The Post in almost every sentence.  Don Eron is a member of the Executive Committee of the Colorado AAUP. He is co-author of the Conference’s report on Ward Churchill.  He was recently appointed to the National AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.]

By Don Eron

The Denver Post’s September 12 editorial, “Churchill Saga Nears End,” offers a resounding “Thank Goodness” that the Colorado Supreme Court rejected Ward Churchill’s appeal. Instead, it affirmed a lower court decision that the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents is a “quasi-judicial authority” that enjoys legal immunity even when they fire a faculty member for espousing opinions that they don’t like.

While the Post has always despised Churchill’s opinions, the 9/12 editorial claims, “it was clear at the end of the day that Churchill wasn’t fired for his opinions” but because the “spotlight” focused on his opinions “exposed his academic deceit.” As the editorial states, a CU research misconduct panel, formed after the University decided that Churchill has a First Amendment right to his opinions, found him guilty of plagiarism, misappropriating the work of others, and misrepresenting sources.

The Post’s insistence that Churchill wasn’t fired for his opinions is an irresponsible distortion. The Colorado Conference of the American Association of University Professor’s comprehensive “Report on the Termination of Ward Churchill,” published in the current AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom, concludes that the research misconduct panel convicted Churchill of academic crimes that he did not commit. The panel declared a standard method of interpretation to be academic misconduct. It disregarded Churchill’s sources and then claimed he had no sources. It faulted him for citation practices that some on the panel use themselves. It contrived new charges against Churchill based on standards designed to protect scholars in his position. The AAUP report, based on careful study of over 17,000 pages of documentation, concludes that the CU investigation into Churchill’s scholarship was a sham. Many other scholars and experts in Churchill’s discipline have reached the same conclusion.

In contrast to the administrative review that convicted Churchill of academic misconduct, the jury in Churchill’s civil trial—in “an odd hitch,” according to the Post—found that Churchill was fired because of his opinions. The jury heard witnesses from both sides and vigorous cross-examination of these witnesses. Among them were every member of CU’s research misconduct committee, the dean, the chancellor, the president of the University, and some Regents. According to an affidavit from juror Bethany Newill, the consensus of the jury was that the majority of CU’s witnesses were “biased and dishonest” and that CU’s procedures were “unfair.”

The jury awarded Churchill one dollar in damages—the Post implies that this negates the jury verdict. However, according to Newill’s affidavit, as the Post should be aware, the jury awarded Churchill the minimal damages because Churchill insisted that the issue wasn’t money, but that he wanted his job back: “We [the jury] hoped the Judge would give Churchill his job back or offer some compensation.”

The University of Colorado and the Denver Post are not the only disingenuous actors in the Churchill affair. The opinion of the Colorado Supreme Court that the termination procedures at CU are the equivalent of judicial proceedings is an odd hitch. Based on the transcripts from CU’s Privilege and Tenure Committee hearing (the “trier of fact,” according to the courts) it is difficult to imagine that anyone in the room considered Churchill’s hearing to be a judicial one. Churchill himself delivered arguments, questioned witnesses, and made objections, often without his attorney present.

Presumably this wouldn’t have happened in a court of law. The chair of the P&T committee disallowed evidence on the basis of whimsy. There was no overview or appeal mechanism to judge whether the Chair’s decisions abused judicial discretion—a fundamental safeguard of our judicial system.

The Post refers to Churchill’s pursuit of justice as “grandstanding.” It hopes that the US Supreme Court will “decline to hear the case and Colorado can relegate the Churchill matter to the history books.” The Churchill case will indeed go down in history. The risk to academic freedom—the right of university faculty to pursue ideas without fear of reprisal—and the subsequent damage to the free exchange of ideas in our society stemming from the Colorado Supreme Court decision will long be examined. While history may never be kind to some of Churchill’s opinions, it will value his prodigious scholarship. CU’s prosecution of Churchill for his ideas, to the sideline cheering of the Denver Post, will be judged more harshly.

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