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The Golden Rule and Academic Freedom

There are many lessons to be learned from the battle at the University of Colorado at Boulder over whether the former ethnic studies departmental chair, but still tenured professor Ward Churchill, should be dismissed from the faculty. The ostensible grounds for the current investigation are suspected irregularities in his academic background that might justify stripping him of tenure and his professorship. The real reason, of course, is that Professor Churchill Web-published an article shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, that denigrated the victims in the World Trade Center twin towers, comparing them to functionaries in the Nazi killing machine, and that put the attackers in a favorable light. Principles of academic freedom probably protect Churchill from dismissal because of the article, but the stronger legal protection for his job is provided by the First Amendment, made applicable to public universities via the Fourteenth Amendment that applies to all state institutions.

This is why the current witch-hunt at Colorado is looking for some kind of fraud or misrepresention in Churchill’s history or in his credentials. Any attempted dismissal for cause is going to have to overcome a defense available to Churchill—that the university knew enough about his credentials (or lack thereof) for the job when it hired, tenured, and promoted him, so that any ground now relied upon for his dismissal likely would be seen by a court as a pretext for the real reason—his obnoxious article, as FIRE intern Daniel Poulson and I have written in The Boston Phoenix.

The primary lesson that I take away from this academic spectacle (“Where else but in higher education could such a farcical spectacle take place?” one asks) is the reliable old Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. For more than two decades now the academic left has been seeking—with a considerable degree of success—to censor and otherwise punish the right for its politically incorrect views on a wide range of social, political, and even intellectual/academic issues. Speech deemed offensive to “historically disadvantaged groups” or otherwise “regressive” has been punished as either “harassment” or “hate speech.” Now comes someone from the left mouthing words and ideas found highly offensive by those on the right (and indeed by many on the left), and he is roundly attacked, with a state legislator from Wisconsin, protesting Churchill’s scheduled March 1 lecture at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, describing his writings as a form of “anti-American hate speech.”

Ah, how the worm turns! What better proof is needed that all folks need to protect the rights of all other folks, because next year the target might be on one’s own back? This is the proven genius of our notions of academic freedom and constitutionally protected free speech, and especially of the doctrine of “viewpoint neutrality.” We all enjoy only so much liberty as we accord those we despise but who might be in the driver’s seat next time around.

Ironically, the offending article written by Professor Churchill was titled “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” How true it is that the chickens do indeed come home to roost! Unfortunately, in too many institutions of higher education, the chicken happens to be the urge to censor. We fight for the day when free speech and academic freedom come home to roost in academia and equal protection of the law becomes a daily reality.

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