Kaminer: “The End of Free Speech at University of Colorado?

By on September 18, 2012

Writing for The Atlantic today, Wendy Kaminer—lawyer, author, civil libertarian, and member of FIRE’s Board of Advisers—poses an important question: Does the Colorado State Supreme Court’s disappointing decision to deny former University of Colorado tenured Professor Ward Churchill’s appeal by granting "absolute immunity" to the Colorado Board of Regents signal "The End of Free Speech at University of Colorado?"

Professor Churchill has maintained—and a jury agreed—that the University’s justification for firing him was pretextual and that the real reason he was fired was for constitutionally protected speech in the form of statements he made about the victims of the attacks on September 11, 2001, that came to light in 2006. The jury awarded Professor Churchill only $1 in nominal damages, but the question of whether he would be reinstated to his job was left to the judge, who declined to reinstate him and vacated the finding that he was terminated for protected speech on the dubious grounds that the university officials were immune from suit. Churchill lost his first appeal before appealing to the state Supreme Court

Examining the consequences of the Supreme Court of Colorado’s decision to affirm the lower appellate court’s ruling, Kaminer persuasively writes:

Free speech advocates are rightly dismayed by this ruling, which advances an awful trend. Academic freedom is declining. The belief that that free speech rights don’t include the right to speak offensively is now firmly entrenched on campuses and enforced by repressive speech or harassment codes. Campus censors don’t generally riot in response to presumptively offensive speech, but they do steal newspapers containing articles they don’t like, vandalize displays they find offensive, and disrupt speeches they’d rather not hear. They insist that hate speech isn’t free speech and that people who indulge in it should be punished. No one should be surprised when a professor at an elite university calls for the arrest of "Sam Bacile" while simultaneously claiming to value the First Amendment.

The full article analyzes the decision and its implications in much greater depth. For more on FIRE’s steady position on the case throughout the years, check out our Ward Churchill case page. And for more on the awful trend of academic freedom in decline, pre-order a copy of FIRE President Greg Lukianoff’s upcoming book Unlearning Liberty on Amazon. 

Schools: University of Colorado at Boulder Cases: University of Colorado at Boulder: Investigation of Professor for Controversial Essay