by Amaury Nora
Freedom of speech is one of the most basic rights that individuals enjoy and one that is taken granted. It is vital to the existence of democracy and the respect of human dignity. It is also one of the most vulnerable rights, because freedom of expression means the freedom to express one’s discontent with the status quo with the desire to change it. In our post-9/11 world, it is one of the most threatened rights; where the government is relying on fear and demonization to curtail this right and to pacify a nervous, poorly informed, and confused citizenry at home. Academic free speech and the First Amendment once are under intense fire in the midst of a political and mass media witch hunt on Ward Churchill, Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Last Tuesday, University of Colorado President and former US Senator Hank Brown received a report from a faculty committee regarding its hearing on alleged research misconduct by Professor Churchill. According to University spokeswoman Michele McKinney, Brown has 15 business days to determine how to proceed – whether are no grounds for dismissal or recommend sanctions such as suspension. There are still many more steps in the process if Brown recommends dismissal.
The relentless pursuit of Professor Churchill is a manifestation of this country’s new form of McCarthyism, which has serious implications on academic freedom and free speech in the US. Churchill has been singled out by the ultra-right, with the assistance of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. The controversy erupted shortly after Churchill was invited to participate on a panel at Hamilton College for an essay “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” he wrote soon after the events of 9/11 came to light.
The passage that has caused the greatest controversy concerned the innocence of some of the victims died in the World Trade Center attacks. Churchill accused some of victims were “technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire” and “little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers.” Whether Churchill’s statement is viewed flawed and reactionary, this does not mean, this grants the ultra-right the right to exploit the controversy in an attempt to advance their ongoing Culture Wars by seeking to demolish free speech rights, liberal and left values, and the academic tenure system, which in their view protects crazed radicals corrupting the minds of youth.
The Right launched a series of attacks on his character and ethnic background, to distort his intention and meaning, and to demand that he be fired from a tenured position designed to protect academics from ideological persecution. Conservative politicians and media pundits demonized Churchill as a “madman” and “cheerleader for terrorists” who spews vile “hate speech” tantamount to treason. Right-wing pundits like Bill O’Reilly, among others urging their listeners to flood Hamilton College, the University of Colorado, and Colorado politicians with letters of complaint demanding that Churchill be fired.
Reaction to Churchill’s views was swift and predictable at the state capitol. Colorado Governor Bill Owens declared, “all decent people … should denounce the views of Ward Churchill” since they “are at odds with simple decency.” He later demanded that he be fired from his tenure. The Colorado House of Representatives released a Joint Resolution in support of the 9/11 victims’ families and vilified Churchill for striking “an evil and inflammatory blow against America’s healing process.”
Within the Colorado university community, reaction was mixed. The reaction from the university’s administration was more controlled. The Chancellor Phil DiStefano, stated that even though Churchill’s statements was “offensive,” and that his the essay had “outraged and appalled us and the general public;” the chancellor held that Churchill had the right to “hold and express his views, no matter how repugnant, as guaranteed by the First Amendment.”
The Colorado administration suddenly decided to begin a 30-day inquiry into “Professor Churchill’s writings, speeches, tape recordings and other works.” The special panel was to look into two issues: whether Churchill’s actions “including his speech, provide any grounds for dismissal for cause” and “if so, is this conduct or speech protected by the First Amendment against University action?”
The report concluded that the First Amendment protected Churchill’s essay and that he could not be dismissed for making such statements. However, the panel determined that there were concerns regarding “standards of professional integrity,” including charges of possible “research misconduct.” The question that should have been asked, if Professor Churchill’s scholarship were an issue, wouldn’t they have discovered all this during his tenure review or during his promotion to Chair of his department, which he later resigned because of the controversy.
Make no mistake, these attacks are politically timed and motivated by the right wing to dismantle the freedom of speech on university campuses nationwide. It is spearheaded in large part by David Horowitz and his David Horowitz Freedom Center (formerly known as Center for the Study of Popular Culture) and Frontpagemag.com, and the Association of College Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). Horowitz’s is under the impression that the current political make-up on American universities is predominately left leaning. While many may see Horowitz as kook and a windbag, the fact is, that is his modus operandi.
Horowitz works closely with Karl Rove and other top national Republican leaders, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. He has singled out professors for intellectual ridicule and political vilification. Mastering in the art of rhetoric and spin, he has been on a campaign promoting his “Academic Bill of Rights,” – the Orwellian version of valuing intellectual diversity among faculty and protecting students whose political views differ with their professors.
Aiding Horowitz in the attack on critical thinking is ACTA, the Washington-based conservative academic “watch-dog” group which released a report last year titled “How Many Ward Churchills?” attacking “undergraduate liberal arts curriculum as it exists on America’s campuses today.” ACTA was founded by Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, and Sen Joe Lieberman in 1995.
After 9/11, ACTA established the Defense of Civilization Fund to support the study of American history and civics and of Western civilization. The Funds first project was the notorious report written in 2001 “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America,” which asserted that “colleges and university faculty have been the weak link in America’s response to the attack” and to fight this weakness American history and Western civilization must be reinstituted and expanded in our colleges.
The fact remains that academe is the only sector of American society that is distinctly divided in its response. Indeed, expressions of pervasive moral relativism are a staple of academic life in this country and an apparent symptom of an educational system which has increasingly suggested that Western civilization is the primary source of the world’s ills – even though it gave us the ideals of democracy, human rights, individual liberty, and mutual tolerance. (page 5)
We believe that the West will fight for its own survival. But only if we know what we are fighting for. … We call upon all colleges and universities to adopt strong core curricula that include rigorous, broad-based courses on the great works of Western civilization as well as courses on American history, America’s Founding documents, and America’s continuing struggle to extend and defend the principles on which it was founded. If institutions fail to do so, alumni should protest, donors should fund new programs, and trustees should demand action. (page 7)
This is disturbing parallel between what is happening in academia now and the educational scenario of Germany during the Nazi build-up and consolidation of power. After Hitler came to power in 1933, political resistance was crushed. Dissent was to be silenced; professions like law and institutions that might challenge the new regime were to be subdued and recast. Eventually, the Nazi Party dominated the teaching profession by dictating who entered it and who got promoted. By the 1940s, the Nazis had a completely compliant cadre of teachers and professors.
When CU President Elizabeth Hoffman made comments suggesting that a McCarthyite atmosphere was being fanned in connection with the Churchill case, she was pressured to resign and was succeeded by one Hank Brown, who is coincidentally a co-founder of ACTA. Now that the decision is up to President Brown, there can be no doubt that ACTA and Horowitz are licking their chops waiting to see Professor Churchill get the ax.
Since September 11, 2001 many forms of mainstream liberalism have been denounced as anti-American. Anyone who believes in the democratic value of academic freedom, who understands that protecting unfettered scholarly inquiry is crucial to developing and sustaining a healthy democratic society. Without the First Amendment, we would be stuck in one way of thinking, frozen in a single moral code, and dissuaded from collective introspection and change. Freedom of speech is part of what keeps us moving forward, and we all have a responsibility to protect it.