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Ward Churchill in the Journal of Academic Freedom

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The 2012 issue of the online Journal of Academic Freedom (JAF) has just appeared. Published annually since 2010 by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the JAF is available free of charge -- and certainly a bargain at that price!

The latest issue includes articles on a variety of topics. Of particular note is an exceptionally thorough and convincing 136-page report by the Colorado Conference of the AAUP on the termination of University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill.

Churchill was fired in 2007 and brought a First Amendment lawsuit that remains in progress. Because he has been so unfairly defamed, and because his case raises crucial issues of academic freedom, it is important that the conclusions of the Colorado AAUP report be widely disseminated. Here are the highlights:

1. The investigation of Churchill by the University of Colorado (CU) was a pretext. Churchill and CU had come under intense attack for his September 12, 2001 essay, referring to victims of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center as "little Eichmanns." But to fire him for personal expression of his political opinions would have violated the First Amendment. Hence the need to concoct an academic investigation.

2. "In its prosecution of Churchill," the report concluded, "the University violated many of its own rules as well as the most basic principles of academic freedom." In constituting the Investigative Committee, for example, "the University declined to appoint... any member of the faculty who had expressed support for Churchill's right to academic freedom" but appointed as chair a professor "who had expressed a strong personal bias against him."

3. The charges regarding fabrication and falsification of evidence involve details of historical interpretation on which scholars disagree and methodological issues that should be debated "in an academic setting, not in a disciplinary hearing." Churchill's overall arguments and major conclusions remain unchallenged.

4. The charges of plagiarism are unsupported and likely false. "None of the authors whom Churchill is accused of plagiarizing have ever accused him publicly." The originality of Churchill's work is not seriously in doubt.

5. The charges of misuse of sources have been a hodgepodge of shifting claims, many of which turned out to be demonstrably false. The rest involve technical issues such as differences across fields of study in the use of page numbers and footnotes. There is no doubt that Churchill routinely provides substantial and proper citations to support his arguments.

6. The CU Investigative Committee specifically criticized Churchill for his unwillingness to change his views. Churchill has in fact changed some of his views over the past two decades. His determination to maintain some of his beliefs in the face of strong disagreement is reasonable given the evidence and protected by norms of academic freedom.

7. Churchill was not just a competent faculty member who met expected scholarly standards. "During his employment at CU, Churchill had published more and won more recognition for his scholarship, teaching, and service than, perhaps, any other member of the faculty."

8. The jury in the First Amendment case "returned a unanimous verdict that Churchill was fired not because of his supposed research misconduct... but in retaliation for his exercise of his First Amendment rights." Unfortunately, noted the report, the trial judge unjustifiably vacated the jury's verdict and the case remains on appeal.

In the same issue of JAF, Churchill replies to a 2010 JAF article about him by Ellen Schrecker, a well-known scholar of McCarthyism and member of the national AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Although he's happy with the recent report from the Colorado AAUP, he is not happy with "liberals" such as Schrecker and others in the national AAUP.

AAUP is accustomed to being attacked for its liberalism but the attacks usually come from its right (in statements from the National Association of Scholars, for example) rather than its left. Churchill's article provides important insights about liberals, leftists, and the internal politics of the AAUP⎯published, it may be worth noting, in an AAUP journal.

The next step in the Churchill case will be a decision from the Colorado Supreme Court. He's not the only one who should be watching to see what it does.