Ward Churchill and American Justice

For those who do not already know, on Tuesday, 07 July 2009, the judge in Ward Churchill’s case (which we followed closely in the months of April and May) finally delivered his ruling on whether Churchill should be reinstated in his position or awarded a lump sum. Judge Larry Naves decided against both — Ward Churchill neither wins back his job, nor does he get any financial compensation. Rather than seek the best possible implementation of the jury’s verdict, which was in Ward Churchill’s favour, a verdict that  itself made the very question of “reinstatement” possible, the judge seems to have looked for ways to essentially not only overturn the verdict, but to even suggest that the expensive trial should not have happened in the first place. When I say that it was the jury that made the very question of reinstatement an option available for consideration, it is because the jury found that Churchill had been unlawfully fired for his Constitutionally protected freedom of speech — not a small matter. The case, then, was not so much about “academic freedom” but about the freedom of an academic like any other U.S. citizen who supposedly has civil liberties protected by the Constitution. If such were the case, then not even the President of the United States nor any other authority has the right to take away what the Constitution gives.

Apparently, such lofty principles do not apply to critics, dissidents, and opponents of the system, and there is no surprise there. This is, after all, the very same system that will whitewash egregious war crimes that put the U.S. at odds with international law, and that is only when war crimes are even tangentially acknowledged and not glossed over with the usual rhetoric of “service to the nation.” Astounding feats of illogical contortion are also not surprising: every declining empire produces them, until the downward curve of louder-than-ever triumphalism meets the upward curve of reality-recognition. Until then, we have the exercise of power when it is power that becomes illegitimate, conceited, transparently contrived, refusing to be questioned when it is at its most questionable.

The freedom of academics also takes a serious blow, that is, the freedom to engage the public political sphere like any other citizen. Somewhere along the line, someone determined that when one becomes an academic, one signs away one’s rights, in return for often temporary and poorly paid positions that are the reward for 10-16 years of university training, far more than for most other professionals that citizens interact with in some way on an almost daily basis (such as lawyers, doctors, engineers). The silencing of academia does not pertain to Ward Churchill alone, but also to people such as Dr. Chris Knight, and many others (with some recent victories along the way, such as that of William Robinson at UCSB — cases that should not even have become cases). Within academia, of course there are the fearful ones, collaborators, and those who wish to be distinguished as model prisoners whose “good behaviour” is appropriately rewarded. After all, it was a Marxist, British, senior academic who responded with a question to me, in apparent defense of the University of East London’s decision to suspend Chris Knight, “Did you hear what Chris said?” (reminding us that Marxist academics can be the best among the model prisoners, keen to play by the rules of the system that upholds them as ornamental dissenters, and that they uphold in turn because it is wise to lick the hand that feeds them).

When I say that the freedom of academics takes a serious blow, it is because Judge Larry Naves — incidentally, a man who allegedly got accepted into university with the assistance of the father of Condoleeza Rice (source) — has decided, in very contradictory terms, that university administrators both represent faculty, and, are like judges and therefore benefit from immunity from prosecution from faculty (not just vacating the jury’s verdict, but the whole trial). Simply put, they are free to fire, presumably on any grounds, at any time. This also effectively puts an end to anything meaningful about tenure.

Ward Churchill and his lawyer, David Lane, are already planning to appeal. In the meantime, the University of Colorado administration is beating its chest like King Kong, and demanding that Churchill pay them $10,000 for their out-of-pocket expenses. I am not advising Ward Churchill on anything here, but my reaction would have been different. Ward is not in danger of living on the street: his books sell, he is in demand as a guest speaker, his wife is a full professor, and he now has the opportunity for full-time activism and writing, without apologies or limits. He is now in the position of doing the most “damage” possible to those who would feel damaged any time he speaks. I would take that, and leave the many who stayed silent to face the consequences of increasing authoritarianism on campus, and totalitarianism in the media and judiciary. Let the elites play with power when power itself is what is most at play. As power slips through the hands that grip it more tightly than ever, they lose sight, they distract, deviate, degenerate, dissimulate, and dissemble, hoping none of us will smell the blood in the water.

Not even a death sentence could reverse or erase Ward Churchill’s words. He continues to enjoy the support of thousands of us, who signed the petition that Larry Naves saw and duly ignored. We continue to buy his books and to assign his works in our classes. And, given that Ward Churchill’s essay on 11 September 2001 is what provoked the hysterical howling of people dedicated to their self-image as righteous and invincible, it will be reproduced on this blog. Ward’s 9/11 essay remains the most lucid, most honest commentary on 9/11 yet to be produced by anyone who has had the misfortune of being born in North America, and if we all agree on something, it is that we all take his work very seriously.

The only further injustice here would be to let Ward continue bearing our collective cause as if it were his alone. Let those who abide silently, suffer in silence — and I mean suffer the ultimate indignity of not being able to truly communicate, and communicate truthfully, when they sacrificed so much to enter a career whose primary basis is communication.

Judge: No job, no money for Ward Churchill: Ruling says CU’s regents immune from former prof’s lawsuit
Daily Camera, John Aguilar, 07 July 2009

U. of Colorado Seeks $10,000 in Legal Costs From Ward Churchill
Chronicle of Higher Education, 08 July 2009

Colorado Judge Mugs Churchill
Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Bousquet, 08 July 2009
also at http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/202

Ward Churchill Gets Nothing
Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik, 08 July 2009

Churchill Arguments to Reinstate: Battle of “the Message”
The Race to the Bottom, 01 July 2009

Churchill Hearing: Color Commentary and Prediction
The Race to the Bottom, 01 July 2009

Judge Larry J. Naves Denies Churchill Even a Pyhrric [sic] Victory
The Race to the Bottom, 08 July 2009

John Holcomb on the Issue of Immunity
The Race to the Bottom, 08 July 2009

Looking Closer at Judge Naves’ Order
The Race to the Bottom, 08 July 2009

Pat O’Rourke’s Clever Trap
The Race to the Bottom, 09 July 2009

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12 thoughts on “Ward Churchill and American Justice

  1. Some good points. What struck me about the decision was that the judge clearly cherry-picked Churchill’s statements in order to arrive at the conclusion that he himself had poisoned the well and thus was not entitled to reinstatement.

    This Naves– is he a Republican or Republican appointee? A case like this really makes his chops for a bigger job. He a hero now to the Right.

    The right-wing legal blogs are having a field day over this– Volokh is reasonable but his commenters are real jerks– none seem to get it that Churchill was scrutinized and fired only because of his speech– and worse, they DON’T CARE. They think that’s perfectly OK. Pretty scary.

    It will be interesting to see the appeal. Some knotty complexities there that will have big repercussions if allowed to stand.

  2. The message is clear. Don’t say anything bad about capitalism, or else! This doesn’t just go for tweedy college professors, but for the rest of us too! Capitalism has created the best standard of living in the world. Isn’t it common sense? ;-)

  3. Plutocracy/kleptocracy; the decision is very disappointing but comes as no surprise.

  4. Interesting also is how the judge ensured that no matter what, Churchill had to lose out from his assessment, by creating a no-win situation:

    (a) On the one hand, Naves suggested that Churchill’s hostility to the university, and the negative views of him on campus, would mean that returning him to the job would prove to be an option that was not viable.

    (b) On the other hand, citing the exceptionally strong and positive assessment from Churchill’s Dept. Chair, which shows that there would be an excellent working environment, Naves used that against her and Churchill — it shows, he thought, that as Dept. Chair she could not perform the job of quality control over his research (which, by the way, NO Dept. Chair does).

    The end result is that if they hate him, Churchill loses. If they love him, Churchill loses.

    By the way, it is that very condition, the so-called Catch 22, that makes for an unfair argument that needs to be reviewed and amended.

    Russell Means put it best: the jury verdict was from ordinary people applying standards of basic fairness and reason unclouded by ulterior motives. Judges, on the other hand, occupy positions of power, and are beholden to diverse vested interests.

    The only problem is that the appeal will end up in the hands of…another judge. If they go as far as the Supreme Court, then even worse: these are high level political appointees with very heavy axes to grind.

  5. Some people have told him there are consequences to free speech. They don’t understand the concept, he said: “If there are consequences, it’s not free.”

    – “(…)Tolerance for politically unpopular views is not always evident on campuses, any more than it is in the world at large, but the university bears a special responsibility to protect freedom of thought and expression. The right to speak, write and think independently is at the core of higher education. It is up to members of the academy to convey this critical message not only to their students but to a larger community. This goal can be advanced if, in the future, similar controversies are addressed in a more deliberative fashion, with regard for all the interests and values at stake(…)” (J. Bertin – NCAC)

    I’m an intern at NCAC (National Coalition Against Censorship) at the moment.
    We also wrote about this case regarding the connection to the First Amendment Rights. If you’re interested in that citation above just visit our homepage (http://www.ncac.org) or join our blog (ncacblog.wordpress.com).

    We’re glad about a lot comments as well as a lively discussion!

    Greetings Jana

  6. Ward is a warrior and will fight this to the end and ultimately win or die trying. That’s what a real warrior does.

  7. Your note is encouraging. I sometimes feel he is the only warrior among us, with so many others happy to just stand by, mute and expressionless, as if all of this was not happening in their world.

  8. I honestly want to understand why Ward Churchill is considered a hero/victim/martyr to scholars such as those of you who post on this site. Did he, or did he not commit academic misconduct? Do you folks believe he did not, or do you believe everyone does this kind of thing and he was unfairly targeted, or what? I’m not trying to troll here, I teach a research methods class so I’d like to be able to explain his defenders’ positions when he comes up (which he occassionally does) in discussions about academic misconduct. I thought I saw some verbage about open discussions and exchanges of information on this blog so you don’t need to assume I’m a nazi and flame me, I’d just like your insights.

  9. Speaking just for myself–though I doubt any of the others who commented here will come back after more than a year that this has been posted–there were so many posts about the Churchill case on this site, that I really don’t want to have to try to repeat them. In short, no, I don’t believe he was guilty of academic misconduct. I detailed the reasons why I say so in over a dozen articles on this site.

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