Friday, April 3, 2009
Jury Says Professor Was Wrongly Fired
Ward Churchill, who was a tenured professor at the University of Colorado, left, walked with his lead attorney David Lane out of the courtroom after a jury ruled that he was wrongly fired by school administrators, on Thursday
April 3, 2009
Jury Says Professor Was Wrongly Fired
By KIRK JOHNSON and KATHARINE Q. SEELYE
DENVER — A jury found on Thursday that the University of Colorado had wrongfully dismissed a professor who drew national attention for an essay in which he called some victims of the Sept. 11 attacks “little Eichmanns.”
But the jury, which deliberated for a day and a half, awarded only $1 in damages to the former professor, Ward L. Churchill, a tenured faculty member at the university’s campus in Boulder since 1991 who was chairman of the ethnic studies department.
The jurors found that Mr. Churchill’s political views had been a “substantial or motivating” factor in his dismissal, and that the university had not shown that he would have been dismissed anyway.
“This is a great victory for the First Amendment, and for academic freedom,” said his lawyer, David A. Lane.
Whether Mr. Churchill, 61, will get his job back, and when, was not resolved. Mr. Churchill’s lawyers said they would ask Judge Larry J. Naves of Denver District Court to order reinstatement, in light of the verdict.
A spokesman for the university, Ken McConnellogue, said administrators would oppose the request. Reinstatement, Mr. McConnellogue said, would probably draw a sharp reaction among many faculty members, because a faculty committee was instrumental in his firing.
The verdict by the panel of four women and two men — none of whom wished to be interviewed by reporters, court officials said — seemed unlikely to resolve the larger debate surrounding Mr. Churchill that was engendered by the case. Is Mr. Churchill, as his supporters contend, a torchbearer for the right to hold unpopular political views? Or is he unpatriotic or — as his harshest critics contend — an outright collaborator with the nation’s enemies at a time of war?
The jury seemed at least partly undecided on what to think about the man at the center of the fight, whose essay made him a polarizing national figure.
While the panel agreed with the argument that an environment of political intolerance for Mr. Churchill’s views was a factor in his firing, Mr. McConnellogue, the university spokesman, contended that its decision to deny him financial damages also sent a message — that Mr. Churchill was not necessarily a figure to be revered, either.
“The jury’s award is some vindication,” he said.
Mr. Churchill, wearing sunglasses in the hallway outside the courtroom, said the size of the award did not matter. “I didn’t ask for money,” he said, “I asked for justice.”
The case has been seen as a struggle between freedom of speech and academic integrity, and it revived the longstanding debate about whether hate speech deserves protection by the First Amendment.
But the monthlong trial mostly focused on Mr. Churchill’s academic work. The jury had to decide whether he had plagiarized and falsified parts of his research, particularly on American Indians, as the university contended in dismissing him. His lawyers described the search for professional misconduct as simply a pretext for a foregone decision to get rid of him.
On Sept. 12, 2001, Mr. Churchill wrote an essay in which he argued that the United States had brought the terrorist attacks on itself. He said that some of those working in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 were not innocent bystanders but “formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire.” He described the financial workers as “little Eichmanns,” a reference to Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi who has been called the architect of the Holocaust.
The essay garnered little notice at the time but gradually seeped through the Internet, coming to light in 2005, and then creating an uproar.
In their closing arguments on Wednesday, lawyers for each side urged the jury to focus on the First Amendment.
Mr. Lane, Mr. Churchill’s lawyer, said his client had been a spokesman throughout his academic career for disempowered people and causes — a trait, Mr. Lane said, that never made Mr. Churchill popular with people in power. “For 30 years, he’s been telling the other side of the story,” Mr. Lane said.
What the university did in firing Mr. Churchill, he told the panel, was political payback, a rigged inquiry into his work that was a “charade of fairness.”
The university’s lawyer, Patrick O’Rourke, asked the jury to think about standards. The pattern of academic misconduct, Mr. O’Rourke said, was not in doubt.
“There’s the real university world, and there’s Ward Churchill’s world,” he said. “Ward Churchill’s world is a place where there are no standards and no accountability.”
Mr. Churchill, he said, was using the Constitution as a smokescreen. “You can’t take the First Amendment and use it to justify fraud,” he said.
Around 3 p.m. on Thursday, jurors asked the judge questions about damages.
First, they asked whether it was possible to award no damages. A few minutes later, they asked whether, if all but one jury member could agree on a dollar amount, that person could be replaced by another juror. (The answer was no.)
The jury then resumed deliberations for about an hour before returning its verdict in Mr. Churchill’s favor.
Kirk Johnson reported from Denver, and Katharine Q. Seelye from New York.
Posted by Independent Intellect at 13:15