Column: First amendment reflections

By Elie Dvorin

University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill has come under serious scrutiny for an essay he wrote after Sept. 11, entitled “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” In the piece, he argued that the Sept. 11 attacks were a legitimate response to the United States’ treatment of Iraqis dating back to the Gulf War.

(Oops: I thought Iraq had nothing to do with Sept. 11.)

In this brilliant piece of scholarly wisdom, Churchill describes the terrorists as “combat teams,” and the victims inside the twin towers as “little Eichmanns,” in reference to Adolph Eichmann, the infamous Nazi who helped execute Hitler’s plan to exterminate the world’s Jews. He also went on to say that the victims at the Pentagon were military targets and that no victims were innocent.

In the last few weeks, Churchill has been at the center of a firestorm. He, his supporters and his opponents have debated the merits of his speech on every cable news channel ad nauseum. Hamilton College in New York cancelled a lecture by Churchill amidst the controversy, and while security concerns were cited, some free speech advocates believe the university caved in to public pressure. All the while, the governor of Colorado, Bill Owens, has called for Churchill’s removal, and the University of Colorado is deciding if disciplinary measures (including firing Churchill) should be taken.

It’s extremely easy right now to hate Ward Churchill. He’s made baseless and egregious comments, offended anybody with a shred of decency and managed to insult innocent victims of terrorism. Nonetheless, his speech, albeit ridiculous, is constitutionally protected. The way to battle back against people like Churchill is to provide a normal opposing viewpoint, which in this case shouldn’t be too difficult. The answer is not to silence him by firing him from the university for speaking his mind. In the end, well-reasoned and rational speeches win out over nonsensical ramblings. It’s very easy to defend First Amendment rights when we agree with the speech in question. Any free society needs to protect the unpopular speech as well.

Those who want to see Churchill fired make the argument that he’s working at a public university and thus for the taxpayers of Colorado. Legally, he does not have the right to spew hate speech from this forum, but for the university to fire him simply because it legally can, sets a terrible precedent. Starting a trend of firing professors for unpopular speech would greatly impinge on academic freedoms and would inevitably lead to a decline in the quality of academic debate, as professors would be more concerned with saving their jobs than promoting new ideas.

That being said, there are legitimate grounds for the firing of Ward Churchill, but they don’t rest on his now famous essay. The protection of free speech does not entitle any professor to be academically dishonest, as Churchill is. In a book he wrote, Churchill makes two blatantly false claims. First, he states that the Israelis are waging a Holocaust against the Palestinians. Secondly, he argues that Hitler had no such plan to systematically eliminate the Jews. The ability to make both of these claims are protected under the First Amendment, but the university does not have to (and should not) tolerate professors blatantly lying to their students and abusing the trust placed in them.

There’s a false notion that rules governing academic dishonesty don’t pertain to the social sciences. Everybody would agree that a chemistry professor who fabricates data to fit his research hypothesis could be fired for academic dishonesty. So why wouldn’t the same apply to a radical ethics professor who pushes a series of lies in order to indoctrinate students with his convoluted left-wing view of the world? There’s clearly no difference. Lies are lies. If the University of Colorado chooses to fire this clown, then it has my blessing, but only if it’s doing so on grounds of academic dishonesty.

Elie Dvorin is a junior in LAS. His column appears on Mondays. He can be reached at [email protected]