Even on a campus rocked by scandal, professor’s case stands out
BOULDER – Crisis after crisis has buffeted the University of Colorado over the past year, from a sex-and-booze scandal in the football program to the alcohol poisoning death of a fraternity pledge at a campus trying to shed its party-school image.But nothing has incited more passion and outrage than Ward Churchill, an ethnic studies professor whose comparison of Sept. 11 victims to a Nazi war criminal has led to death threats, arrests and condemnations by two governors. Talk-show hosts and lawmakers have vilified him as a hatemonger and the school is considering firing him.Churchill has refused to apologize; on the contrary, he has threatened to sue the school if it fires him. No one has defended Churchill’s statements. But a debate is raging over whether a tenured, taxpayer-supported professor had the right to say such things.The debate has already turned ugly. Two students were arrested at a Board of Regents meeting last week and swastikas were spray-painted on Churchill’s pickup. At least one of his speeches was canceled because of security concerns.At the heart of the debate is a 3 1/2-year-old essay in which Churchill suggested the World Trade Center victims were not innocent but players in a repressive global empire that was finally getting a measure of comeuppance. He called them “little Eichmanns,” a reference to Adolf Eichmann, the Gestapo bureaucrat who organized the Nazi campaign of exterminating Jews.The essay, “Some People Push Back,” attracted little notice until last month, after he was invited to speak at Hamilton College, a private liberal arts school in upstate New York. Hamilton professor Theodore Eismeier said he found the essay on the Internet during what he calls “a casual effort to learn more about Churchill.”In an e-mail to The Associated Press, Eismeier said he was alarmed by the “outlandish and odious rhetoric” and urged administrators to withdraw Churchill’s invitation. When they did not, he alerted Ian Mandel, the editor of Hamilton’s student newspaper who published a story about Churchill’s writings on Jan. 21.Within days, the essay was national news. New York Gov. George Pataki called Churchill a “bigoted terrorist supporter” and the relative of one Sept. 11 victim called him a “nut case.” The Colorado Legislature branded the comments “evil and inflammatory,” while Gov. Bill Owens called for his ouster.Hamilton canceled the speech, citing death threats against Churchill and administrators. A speech here Tuesday night was postponed, though campus police spokesman Lt. Tim McGraw said he had no immediate details.Churchill has stepped down as chairman of ethnic studies, saying he had become a liability as a spokesman for the university. School officials began a 30-day review of his speeches and writings to determine whether he crossed the boundaries of academic freedom and tenure and should be fired.Civil liberties advocates say Churchill’s comments would have provoked controversy in any era. But the huge loss of life on Sept. 11 intensified the reaction, said Cathryn Hazouri, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.”I think if this were a pre-9-11 statement blaming the United States for its policies, there would have been outrage, yes, but I don’t think there would have been as much outrage,” she said.The ACLU issued a statement defending Churchill’s right to speak out and called on regents, legislators and the governor “to stop threatening Mr. Churchill’s job because of the content of his opinions.”Scholars worry the backlash will leave other professors fearful of challenging conventional opinion.”We recognize that academic freedom comes with limits, but we also know that any interference with academic freedom without strong cause sends a very chilling message to the entire academic community,” said Barbara Bintliff, chairwoman of the Boulder Faculty Assembly.David Shoffitt, a member of the CU College Republicans, said the debate is not about free speech but about who is financing it. His group has called for Churchill to be fired.”We’re not saying that he didn’t have a right to say something. We’re saying he does not have a right to say this on taxpayer money,” Shoffitt said.David Horowitz, a champion of conservative causes who has long accused American universities of overstocking their faculties with leftists, said firing Churchill would violate his First Amendment rights and set a bad precedent.He called instead for an inquiry into the university’s hiring and promotion procedures “to see how Ward Churchill could get to the pinnacle of the faculty, to be the chair of an entire department.””This isn’t like a guy who was suddenly exposed. This is a guy who’s been out in the open for 30 years and was promoted,” Horowitz said.The dispute has captured students’ attention because it strikes at the heart of academic freedom, said Veronica Crespin, one of three students who head the university’s Student Union.”I think a lot of students are worried that they won’t get the true and honest education they thought they were going to get when they got here, that professors will be afraid to say something or publish something that the administration or the public disagrees with,” she said.
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