Jury: University of Colorado wrongly fired prof
April 2, 2009
DENVER ” A jury ruled Thursday that the University of Colorado wrongly fired the professor who compared some Sept. 11 victims to a Nazi, giving him only $1 in damages but a chance to get his job back.
Ward Churchill was fired on charges of research misconduct, but he maintained he was dismissed in retaliation for his comments about Sept. 11 victims.
Jurors agreed, saying Churchill never would have been fired if he hadn’t written an essay in which he called the World Trade Center victims “little Eichmanns,” a reference to Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi leader who orchestrated the Holocaust.
A judge will decide whether Churchill gets back his job as a tenured professor of ethnic studies, after his attorneys file a motion for reinstatement.
“What’s next for me? Reinstatement, of course,” Churchill said. “That’s what I asked for. I didn’t ask for money.”
His lead attorney, David Lane, said the reinstatement motion would be filed within 30 days and a hearing would likely be scheduled in June.
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When the verdict was read, Churchill hugged his wife, Natsu Saito, and Lane.
Outside the courtroom, the normally outspoken Churchill seemed to struggle for words as he faced television cameras.
“I’m just formulating a couple of thoughts,” he said. “What was asked for and what was delivered was justice.”
Lane called the verdict a significant victory for free speech.
“There are few defining moments that give the First Amendment this kind of light,” he said.
University spokesman Ken McConnellogue said the university will review its options before deciding whether to appeal.
“(The verdict) doesn’t change the fact that more than 20 of his faculty peers found that he engaged in plagiarism and other academic misconduct,” McConnellogue said.
He said the jury’s $1 damage award sends a message about the merits of Churchill’s civil claims.
Lane said the university will also be liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in Churchill’s legal bills.
Churchill’s essay touched off a national firestorm, and then-Gov. Bill Owens and other officials publicly called on the university to fire him.
Betsy Hoffman, who was president of the university at the time, testified that Owens pressured her to fire Churchill and said he would “unleash my plan” when she told him she couldn’t.
In his testimony, Owens denied threatening the university.
University officials concluded Churchill couldn’t be fired because of his First Amendment rights, but they launched an investigation of his academic research.
That investigation, which didn’t include the Sept. 11 essay, concluded he had plagiarized, fabricated evidence and committed other misconduct. He was fired on those allegations in 2007.
The university has maintained that the firing was justified.
Churchill’s essay was written in 2001 but attracted little attention until 2005, when critics publicized it after he was invited to speak at Hamilton College in upstate New York.
Churchill testified last week that he didn’t mean his comments to be hurtful to Sept. 11 victims. He said he was arguing that “if you make it a practice of killing other people’s babies for personal gain … eventually they’re going to give you a taste of the same thing.”
After the verdict, he criticized the media for shaping the “public consciousness in a false fashion.”
Jay Brown, a professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law who blogged about the case, predicted before the verdict was delivered that jurors would reach a decision favoring Churchill, partly because they were young and the anger and interest in Churchill had diminished.
“In 2005, everybody had an opinion about Ward Churchill,” Brown said. “And I think this jury was young enough that they were unaffected by what happened in 2005.”