Ward Churchill fired from University of Colorado

The spectacularly controversial academic was turfed out of his tenured position in an 8-1 vote by the University's Board of Regents. Churchill has ten days to appeal the decision, but has already indicated he will challenge his termination in court. Churchill, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, garnered international attention when he referred to 9/11 victims as 'technocrats' and 'little Eichmanns' in the essay Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens. The furor over these terrorist-victims-as-nazis remarks led to the cancellation of several speaking engagements, widespread media attention, and made Churchill a cause celebre of the hysterical right, including everyone's favourite media jackass, Bill O'Reilly.

The University of Colorado initially supported Churchill's right to free speech, but subsequently launched an investigation into his scholarly work. A special investigatory committee allegedly found numerous examples of 'research misconduct'- bad citation, plagiarism, etc.- in his scholarship. The university maintains his termination is based on his academic record, not his controversial statements.

This, of course, is slightly suspect. A few weeks ago I posted on Norman Finkelstein, another academic denied tenure apparently for the controversial and confrontational style of his scholarship. I made the basic point that academia suffers when free debate and comment are stifled by controversy-adverse university administrators. Now, there are a few differences between Churchill and Finkelstein. Finkelstein was denied tenure, whereas Churchill was removed from a tenured position. The revocation of tenure is unquestionably a more extreme penalty.

But the big difference is this: Churchill is an idiot, and Finkelstein is not. Anybody, anywhere, who suggests that the victims of 9/11 deserved to die in retribution for the USA's numerous atrocities is interested only in perpetuating a cycle of violence and justifying the murder of innocent civilians. His comparison of the twin tower victims to Adolph Eichmann demonstrates either a baffling misapprehension of history or an inexcusable distortion of fact to make a crass political point. Worst of all, Churchill's aspersions give fodder to right-wing groups like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and David Horowitz's Freedom Center in their continued putsch of left-wing views from academia. These groups erroneously take extreme cases as typical, and as an extreme case, Churchill is a godsend.

Despite all this (and as 'all this' lists go, this one is substantial), any attempt to silence political speech within a university is damaging to basic freedom of expression. Churchill may say idiotic things and couch his arguments in unecessarily inflammatory rhetoric, but his right to criticize is sacrosanct. And the case against Churchill's scholarly record is problematic. Numerous colleagues have criticized UC Boulder's assessment of Churchill's scholarship. Cornell Professor Eric Cheyfitz claims the investigatory committee did not include expert's in Churchill's field and relied to heavily on his scholarly opponents for input. Moreover, what the committee labelled misconduct are examples of the deep controversey surrounding Churchill's primary research interest, the history of aboriginal North Americans.  Said Cheyfitz:

"What they've done is turn an academic debate into an indictment of one side of that debate."

The timing of UC Boulder's investigation is also suspect. Said Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

"Given that this [investigation] was initially launched because of his public opinions, he's going to have an argument that this was all pretextual...by launching the investigation initially because people were angry about what he had said, not because of these pre-existing claims of academic misconduct."

Dahlia Lithwick brilliantly distills the problem with firing Churchill in her Slate article, Stupidity as a Firing Offense (I've edited the following sections for brevity):

If academic tenure means anything at all, it means professors must be allowed to say and write what they choose without fearing removal by popular referendum....Churchill's silly notions have been in the public domain for years. Firing him only now suggests that Bill O'Reilly, as opposed to his faculty peers, gets the deciding vote on who is allowed to teach our young people.

Churchill's 9/11 comments were patently offensive. But they were not hate speech, they were not treason, and they were not in any sense a call to imminent violence on the part of his listeners. Read in context, his words are the purest form of political speech. Does that mean students have to take his classes? No. Does it mean any university needs to invite him to speak or even hire him in the first place? No. But does it mean that the governor or the board of regents are entitled to remove him now, simply because some "taxpayer money" goes to pay his salary? No. That would make virtually every professorship in the land subject to a heckler's veto....

....Virtually everyone who has called for Churchill's removal makes the same argument: "What if it was your son/husband/mother killed in the towers?" But that is not an argument for suppressing speech—particularly on college campuses and particularly at a forum ostensibly testing the "limits of dissent." It's an argument for making all political discourse conform to the sensibilities of the most fragile victim. It's an argument for banning any discussions of the American Revolution in history classes because some student may have burnt her tongue on a mug of tea once.

Lithwick also points to a quote by John Stuart Mill:

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Universities and university faculties are engines of debate. If popular opinion, or worse still, the opinion of right-wing blowhards, is allowed to determine the limits of political discourse, then the quality of that discussion will be compromised. Let Churchill's scholarship and opinions stand on their own merit. Mill has the right idea: the collision of error and truth inevitably strengthens the truth. If we silence Churchill, it is no victory for knowledge or propriety. It truncates debate, and compromises the legitimacy of opposing views. Freedom is a messy thing. To use a peanut butter analogy, you've got to take the crunchy with the smooth.