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Ward Churchill

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The University of Colorado's report on the investigation of Ward Churchill's alleged scholarly misconduct has just been released. Churchill was found guilty of deliberate false assertions, misrepresentation of sources, and plagiarism. One member of the committee suggested that Churchill be fired from his tenured position; two more urged a five-year suspension without pay; two urged a two-year suspension without pay.

Here's a sample of one of the more interesting forms of misconduct, related to what some people call "sock-puppetry": Churchill is found guilty of passing off others' work as his own (plagiarism), but also of passing off his own work as others'. The latter is faulted as a general departure from "established standards regarding author names on publications" (p. 89); but it's also more specifically, and more seriously, faulted because Churchill then used the work published under another's name "as apparently independent authority for claims that he makes in his own later scholarship" (p. 89). This "permits the author to create the false appearance that his claims are supported by other scholars when, in fact, he is the only source for such claims" (p. 90). Here's an example, from pp. 23-24 (some paragraph breaks and emphasis added):

Footnotes 63 and 64 of his "Perversions of Justice," in Struggle for the Land (1993 edition), contain basically three sources to support the claims regarding the General Allotment Act of 1887. All appear to the reader to be reputable, independent third-party sources.

First, Professor Churchill cites directly to the originally enacted version of the General Allotment Act of 1887 .... [But n]ot only is his statement unsupported by his source, but also more significantly, he did not follow the referencing convention that a lawyer or historian citing a lengthy statute for a particular detail normally would follow, which is to pinpoint the precise section number of the multi-section statute that supported his claim. As one will see throughout this report, this general reference to an apparent independent source in its entirety constitutes an unconventional referencing style frequently employed by Professor Churchill to create the appearance of independent support for his claims, while simultaneously discouraging or, at least, making far more difficult, any effort by other researchers to check his claims by failing to pinpoint the precise location of his claimed support in an otherwise lengthy work. Standing alone, this referencing failure might constitute some level of sloppiness, but certainly would not constitute research misconduct.

When it is combined with a pattern of other misconduct reflected in this and other allegations, however, the Committee is left with a firm impression, by a preponderance of the evidence, that it constituted part of a deliberate research stratagem to create the appearance of independent verifiable support for claims that could not be supported through existing primary and secondary sources. To put it most simply, it was part of a pattern and consistent research stratagem to cloak extreme, unsupportable, propaganda-like claims of fact that support Professor Churchill's legal and political claims with the aura of authentic scholarly research by referencing apparently (but not actually) supportive independent third-party sources. The next problem discussed with these two footnotes makes this stratagem far clearer.

The other two apparently independent third-party sources cited in footnotes 63 and 64 are essays published in the same volume, The State of Native America, one under the name of a person named Rebecca Robbins and the other under the name of M. Annette Jaimes, the editor of the volume. Since both essays do contain statements of the type that Professor Churchill claims, that might have put an end to the matter of research misconduct regarding this allegation, except for the fact that in response to the separate allegation that he had plagiarized the Robbins essay in another later published piece, Professor Churchill said in Submission E that he had in fact ghostwritten both the Robbins and the Jaimes essays, in full.... [This] constitutes a serious problem of research misconduct. The initial support for the disputed statement involved three independent sources. As already noted, the Act does not expressly provide what Professor Churchill claims and therefore can provide no support for his claims whatsoever. The two other apparently independent third-party sources, the Robbins and Jaimes essays, turn out not to be independent sources at all but, rather, to have been ghostwritten in their entirety by Professor Churchill. This action provided him with apparent independent sources that he could and did in fact cite to support otherwise insupportable claims of legal and historical fact. In short, when one carefully dissects the Churchill claim quoted in the original allegation, the three apparently independent third-party sources dissolve into one source (the Act) that clearly does not expressly support his claim, and two other sources (the Robbins and Jaimes chapters) that he wrote himself.

Although Professor Churchill purported to offer his claims as supported by research, based on independent sources, it turns out that the claims not only cannot be supported but that he has misrepresented the independent nature of his sources employed to buttress the unsupportable details of his conclusions....

Incidentally, while the Churchill report generally seems very thoughtful and scholarly, it does have a small error, included in the discussion of whether the circumstances in which the charges were brought -- public condemnation of Churchill for his description of the victims of the World Trade Center attacks as "little Eichmanns" -- affect the propriety of the investigation. The report states (p. 4):

To use an analogy, a motorist who is stopped and ticketed for speeding because the police officer was offended by the contents of her bumper sticker, and who otherwise would have been sent away with a warning, is still guilty of speeding, even if the officer's motive for punishing the speeder was the offense taken to the speeder's exercise of her right to free speech. No court would consider the improper motive of the police officer to constitute a defense to speeding, however protected by legal free speech guarantees the contents of the bumper sticker might be.

In fact, the First Amendment rule, as set forth in Wayte v. U.S., 470 U.S. 598 (1985), is:

"Selectivity in the enforcement of criminal laws is . . . subject to constitutional constraints." In particular, the decision to prosecute may not be "'deliberately based upon an unjustifiable standard such as race, religion, or other arbitrary classification,'" including the exercise of protected statutory and constitutional rights [such as free speech].

Even prosecution of people who are guilty of a nonspeech crime might thus violate the First Amendment if the government deliberately selected them for prosecution because of their constitutionally protected expression (though I should note that this is a very tough claim to prove).

Nonetheless, whatever may be the rule for criminal prosecutions triggered by the policeman's own hostility to the target's speech, such a rule need not be applied here. This isn't a criminal prosecution, but the university's decision whether to keep someone on its faculty; it need not keep a dishonest scholar on board, even if the complaints about the scholar were motivated partly by the complainers' hostility to the scholar's viewpoints. And as best I can tell, there's little reason to think that the University wouldn't have investigated Churchill had he been accused of the same misconduct but had expressed diferrent views. These are serious charges, and my guess is that most universities would indeed look into alleged multiple falsification of evidence and plagiarism by their faculty members.

There was a connection between Churchill's politics and the investigation, but it seems to me much more attenuated than in the bumper sticker context. Churchill first attracted public notice because of his "little Eichmanns" comment. This led people to scrutinize his work, and past critics of his to repeat their criticisms. This in turn yielded the large body of accusations, large enough that the University had to take notice (in a way that it didn't seem to have done when at least one of the accusations had been separately brought to its notice some years before). So the better analogy is if someone had caused a lot of controversy by his bumper sticker; this caused a lot of people to notice him, and in the process to notice that he was speeding; they in turn complained to the police officer; and the police officer gave him a speeding ticket. There, I think there's no problem under Wayte; the government official (the police officer) wasn't making the enforcement decision based on the bumper sticker, though the people who complained to the officer -- private parties who have no viewpoint-neutrality obligation under the First Amendment -- were motivated by the bumper sticker.

As the report points out, "public figures who choose to speak out on controversial matters of public concern naturally attract more controversy and attention to their background and work than scholars quietly writing about more esoteric matters that are not the subject of political debate" (p. 4) (emphasis added). That seems to me to be exactly what happened here. Unfortunately for Ward Churchill, it turns out that his scholarship couldn't bear the attention that his statements prompted.