Suit could end in settlement

By on July 25, 2007

When Ward Churchill takes his dismissal case to court, he will have difficulty shifting a jury’s focus away from the academic-misconduct findings in his research, the president of a national watchdog group for free speech on college campuses said Tuesday.

But the timing of the University of Colorado’s academic-misconduct investigation into Churchill’s work could be a hole in the school’s defense, said Greg Lukianoff, who heads the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, based in Philadelphia.

Churchill—freshly fired from CU—is expected to file a First Amendment lawsuit against the university this morning in Denver District Court. The regents Tuesday evening voted 8-1 to dismiss him from the university, where he has worked since 1978.

He will receive one year’s salary as a tenured professor but will be immediately relieved of his faculty post and responsibilities.

The former professor and his attorney plan to argue in court that the university fired the professor in retaliation for the Sept. 11 essay he authored that ignited a national furor in 2005. Then-Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, called for Churchill’s immediate dismissal.

CU officials determined the First Amendment protected his controversial speech, but they launched an investigation into Churchill’s body of work.

Lukianoff said he expects that the First Amendment case could survive summary judgment and conclude with the university entering a settlement with Churchill.

“I think that overall, it’s going to be an interesting, but difficult, lawsuit,” he said.

Scholars in American Indian studies had long complained about Churchill’s research, but those claims were not investigated until after the professor sparked controversy with his essay—which could be a key argument against the university, Lukianoff said.

Specific scholarly arguments will not likely arise in court, he said, but the academic-misconduct findings, due process and confidentiality rules will likely be defining elements.

Churchill will have a “tough time” defending the plagiarism and fabrication findings, which are legitimate reasons to fire a tenured professor, Lukianoff said.

CU’s top leaders said they could not estimate how much a lawsuit would cost, but they are braced for it.

“I don’t think a great university can be intimidated by threats of legal action,” CU President Hank Brownsaid.

University officials say their review of Churchill’s case has focused on his professional activities, not his statements about victims of Sept. 11. Churchill has the right to make controversial political statements, according to the university.

Churchill’s academic-misconduct case has played out for 2 ½ years.

“There isn’t anybody that can look you in the eye and say that this case hasn’t had due process,” Brown said.

CU Regent Pat Hayes said she and her colleagues on the board did not take into consideration the potential for a lawsuit while they were deliberating.

Churchill’s attorney, David Lane, has described the university’s proceedings and hearings as a “kangaroo court,” and he said he believes his client will have a fairer shake in front of a jury.

Lane said he is filing his client’s case in Denver District Court instead of federal court because it will move with “lightning speed” there.

Churchill and his supporters say the dismissal will have a chilling effect on speech that will shake college classrooms.

“This fight has an importance way beyond Ward Churchill,” Churchill said.

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Schools: University of Colorado at Boulder