News from Day 6 of Ward Churchill’s Lawsuit Against the University of Colorado

Marianne Wesson, faculty of University of Colorado testifies during Ward Churchill's civil suit against the University of Colorado at the City and County Building in Denver, Colorado March 16, 2009. Churchill is suing the University of Colorado for wrongful termination. CAMERA/Mark Leffingwell
Marianne Wesson, faculty of University of Colorado testifies during Ward Churchill's civil suit against the University of Colorado at the City and County Building in Denver, Colorado March 16, 2009. Churchill is suing the University of Colorado for wrongful termination. CAMERA/Mark Leffingwell

Bias, rules, meaninglessness, and footnotes.

Monday, 16 March, 2009, was Day 6 of Ward Churchill’s court case against the University of Colorado in defense of academic freedom, and it was an excellent day for Churchill’s team to again call some of his more notorious pursuers to account, leaving them to destroy their own reputations and credibility while on the stand. In particular, this was Churchill’s chance to see Prof. Marianne “Mimi” Wesson twist in the wind.

Dr. Marianne “Mimi” Wesson, a CU law professor who had served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted criminal cases for 1½ years and was a dean at CU for one year. She was appointed by the CU Standing Committee on Research Misconduct, to serve as the chair of the investigative committee, which was charged with investigating Churchill’s works further after the Standing Committee conducted an initial review of the allegations of research misconduct following Churchill’s 9/11 essay (source).

David Lane, Ward Churchill’s attorney on Monday accused the head of the committee that investigated Churchill for allegedly fraudulent scholarship of being biased against his client from even before she had met him or become acquainted with her case. In the process, he also demonstrated how her committee and the report it produced, also was guilty of some of the exact same practices for which they faulted Churchill.

These exchanges were recorded by the Daily Camera:


“You would agree that the hallmark of due process is an unbiased judge?” Lane asked the law professor, Mimi Wesson, on Monday.

Wesson agreed.

Lane then showed the jury an e-mail Wesson wrote to a colleague in February 2005 in which she said of Churchill that she was “somewhat mystified by the variety of people this unpleasant (to say the least) individual has been able to enlist to defend him.”

[To be more specific, the email was one that Wesson sent to Nancy Ehrenreich, a law professor at the University of Denver, that stated: “I confess to being somewhat mystified about the variety of people this unpleasant (to say the least) individual has been able to enlist to defend him. I know people say it’s the principle, but we aren’t all out there defending Bob Guccione’s first amendment rights” (source) — referring to a pornographer.]

Wesson admitted on the stand that she hadn’t met Churchill at that point.

In the e-mail, Wesson went on to write that the support Churchill was receiving from free speech advocates reminded her “unhappily of the rallying around O.J. Simpson and Bill Clinton and now Michael Jackson and other charismatic male celebrity wrongdoers.”

Wesson responded that she wasn’t likening the professor to those three men but talking about similarities in the way segments of the public closed ranks around them.

“So you were saying rallying around O.J. Simpson, a double murderer; Bill Clinton, a philandering liar; and Michael Jackson, a child molester; was the same as rallying around Ward Churchill?” Lane asked.

Wesson agreed.

She testified that she felt Churchill’s 9/11 essay was “cruel and gratuitous,” but recognized it as protected speech.

Lane kept pounding away, moving next to the reasons why Wesson’s committee found Churchill guilty of academic misconduct.

Land asked why Wesson’s investigating committee couldn’t accept that Churchill did not footnote every statement because some were passed on as oral tradition in American Indian communities. Lane said that such sources do not require the kind of attribution that is common in Anglo-European culture.

Wesson could only say that Churchill should have made that clear in his writings. This is another way of saying that Wesson is completely unfamiliar with indigenous studies, and should never have been put in the position of judging Churchill’s work, as if to instruct him on “correct” and “proper” practice.

Lane also raised the issue that Churchill was accused by Wesson’s committee of falsification in his analysis of the General Allotment Act of 1887, “in large part because certain words and phrases he attributed to the act, like ‘blood quantum,’ never appeared in the language of the act” (source). In that vein, Lane pounced on the opportunity to take Wesson to task, asking her why she used quotation marks when writing about “academic freedom” in her email. Wesson said she was using the quotation marks to get across a point in a sarcastic manner, rather than referencing exact words from a document. “So quotes can mean different things in different contexts?” This question refers to exchanges that had occurred in earlier testimony during the day, with respect to questions posed to Paul Lombardo.

More criticism of the quality of the investigation pursued by Wesson’s committee came from Dr. Paul Lombardo, a professor of law at Georgia State University and an expert in eugenics. Lombardo agreed that while it is true that the General Allotment Act of 1887 that Churchill cited in his writings concerning racial purity and property rights among American Indians never mentioned the word “eugenics,” he understood Churchill’s basic argument that the law had that very effect (source). One would also understand in that context that Churchill’s use of quotation marks is to distance himself from a repulsive idea, nor was he responsible for the idea, nor does he wish to further normalize it.

Lombardo also testified that the CU investigating committee treated the issue of eugenics very narrowly in its report. In fact, so narrowly did it treat the question that only a negative assessment of Churchill’s work could possibly be generated. This also points to the fact that the investigating committee, on this like so many other issues, simply did not possess the requisite intellectual standing and research background needed in their attempt to better Churchill at his own work. “I think this committee doesn’t really know very much about the history of eugenics,” Lombardo told the jury (source).

Lombardo also criticized the committee for sanctioning Churchill for improper use of footnotes in his works when it made a similar mistake in its own report. Lombardo said: “If you are going to be that fussy about footnoting, you should follow your own rules” (source).

The attorney for the University of Colorado, Patrick O’Rourke, during cross-examination said that Lombardo was not an expert in American Indian studies nor did he have extensive knowledge about the General Allotment Act. Lombardo agreed (source). O’Rourke’s effort, it seems, was to try to obscure the fact the investigating committee also lacked such expertise, and had even less than Lombardo especially when it came to matters of eugenics, and yet the report was the basis for Churchill’s firing.

O’Rourke and Lombardo had several exchanges concerning the use of quotation marks, with O’Rourke asking why Churchill had quoted words and phrases that were attributed to the act but that didn’t actually appear in the act. Lombardo said quotation marks can be used in different ways in scholarly works and don’t necessarily have to represent exact wording (source).

A dispute also arose over whether Churchill had an obligation to cite an author for words that the author had originally appropriated from Churchill. Astoundingly, Churchill was accused of plagiarism for effectively using his own words.

What what Wesson helps to make clear, in the end, is that when you go into a seemingly formal investigation of methodology, but with the previously formed intention to take down a man, you generate the technical details and results to suit — in this case, often extremely petty and pedantic points were made that it was embarrassing to read some parts of the report. The result is a superficially technical, academic report, that masks some very ugly political faces such as Wesson’s.

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