File Ward Churchill under “Annoying Blowhards Who Have Come To Embody Important Policy Questions.” One couldn’t unearth a less attractive poster boy for free-speech rights in academia. Churchill may be fired from his faculty position at the University of Colorado for having written and spoken some of the most moronic nonsense ever to emanate from the mouth of an alleged academic. But he shouldn’t be punished for being a hack. The folks who hired him should.
Shortly after Sept. 11, Churchill authored an essay, “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,”in which, among other things, he suggested that everyone who died in the Twin Towers that day were “little Eichmanns”—mindless capitalist functionaries somehow deserving of their fate. (Churchill has since stated that the janitors, children, and firemen who died should probably have been excluded from that charge.) He celebrated the 9/11 terrorists as freedom fighters. The essay is pretty much a sophomoric rant, intended solely to shock, and indistinguishable in kind and in tone from some of his earlier “scholarship,” including this nonsense on the Jewish plot to claim “exclusive rights” to the Holocaust, which is, in turn, based on this drivel, lauded in some circles as groundbreaking political theory.
Now, nobody at the University of Colorado seems to have much minded that Churchill’s footnotes often took the form of creative exaggerations and omissions, or that his trite little analogies to all-things-Nazi is a rhetorical device most of us outgrew in the third grade. Indeed, Churchill—who holds only a master’s degree from Sangamon State University *—is a tenured professor and was, until he resigned earlier this week, the esteemed head of the university’s Ethnic Studies Department.
What changed over the past week has nothing to do with Churchill’s scholarship or comments, or even with his increasingly dubious claims of Native American ancestry. What changed was that Churchill was invited to give a speech at Hamilton College—a small liberal arts university in upstate New York—on “The Limits of Dissent.” What changed was that someone on the faculty at Hamilton Googled Churchill and reasonably felt his “little Eichmann” remarks were offensive. What changed was that the governor of New York called him a “bigoted terrorist supporter,” and the perennially classy Bill O’Reilly posted the address of Hamilton College President Joan Hinde Stewart on his show. The predictable flood of death threats she received convinced her to cancel the speech—for fear of student safety at the event.
And suddenly, Ward Churchill is a household name. Garnering a hero’s welcome back in Colorado this week, Churchill deliberately taunted both Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, who’s called for his termination, and the school’s board of regents, who have opened an emergency 30-day review period in which to determine whether he can legally be fired.
But fired for what, exactly?
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. That’s why the decision to grant someone tenure must be taken so seriously in the first place. One hundred percent of the blame for the Churchill debacle rests with the University of Colorado’s board of regents that hired, granted tenure to, and promoted an individual whose scholarship and personal qualifications are now, and must always have been, in serious question. 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.
A few years ago I wrote a piece about the kinds of violent protest witnessed at Hamilton last week—suggesting that when students or community members block an unpopular speaker through riots or death threats, it is they, rather than the speaker, who have crossed the line from protected speech to assault. We’ve become so persuaded that college students’ fragile political sensibilities trump both academic rigor and open discourse that when they silence unpopular ideas through protest or threats of violence, we treat it as their sacred right.
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.
In his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote:
[T]he 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.
We can none of us learn anything—not our college kids and not our choleric talk show hosts—if our fixed notions aren’t challenged. In a perfect world they would be challenged by scholars and intellectuals rather than cheap provocateurs. But it’s ultimately the university’s task, not mine or yours, to draw that distinction.
Correction, Feb. 11: The original article mistakenly spelled Ward Churchill’s alma mater as Sangaman State University. The correct spelling is Sangamon. The name of the school is misspelled on Churchill’s University of Colorado faculty bio page. (Return to the corrected sentence.)