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Ward Churchill: Down But Not Out

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Professor Ward Churchill committed the unpardonable sin; he questioned the prevailing wisdom. He dared to actually offer an opinion that differed with the status quo. He had the audacity to say something the powers that be didn't want the people to hear. And for this, he has been vilified by the media and by public officials.

On Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the attack on the twin towers, Ward Churchill wrote a lengthy op-ed piece published online as a reaction to possible causes of 9/11. In it he stated that it was the chickens coming home to roost, a quote from Malcolm X, for the 100's of 1000's of deaths caused by the sanctions against Iraq lasting over a decade.
On the subject of those who lost their lives that day being "innocent civilians" he commented that those in the Pentagon certainly did not fit that label, and the ones in the towers, while they were civilians of a sort, were not innocent. They were the very heart of America's global financial empire and were worthy of the title "little Eichmanns." This phrase would come back to haunt him.

So who is Ward Churchill? He was a full professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He was, and remains, a political activist, mostly in the area of the treatment of native Americans and political dissidents.

By the Spring of 2005, the "Churchill controversy" had become the standard fare on O'Reilly, Sean Hanity, Rush Limbaugh, Joe Scarborough, and other right-wing media outlets, as well as local Denver and Boulder newspapers. It became an all-out attempt at character assassination, including calling into question his native American heritage and charges of plagiarism. Congressman Bob Beauprez demanded Churchill's resignation. Gov. Bill Owens demanded that Churchill be fired. Both chambers of the Colorado legislature passed resolutions condemning Professor Churchill and threatened to withhold funds from CU. Several committee meetings later, the issue remains unresolved. He has been cleared of any wrong doing regarding the "offending words", and all that remains are seven questions of possible research misconduct.

This article isn't about what he did, or may have done, or even about the words he used. It's about why it matters. Is this a witch hunt? Does it echo of McCarthyism? His credibility has certainly been called into question, but it has happened in the court of public opinion, not a court of law, and no final results have been released from CU. Has the college lost credibility as well? Has academic freedom suffered a setback? These are more important questions than the fate of one man...of Ward Churchill. The public support for Churchill is mainly on these very grounds; academic freedom. What started as an outrage over the words he chose has morphed into something much bigger and much more important. An outrage that caused the then Gov of Colorado to call for Churchill's firing, has evolved into a fight over something that should be precious to us all, the right to speak freely.

We live in a time when our civil liberties are being eroded by things like The Patriot Act and it often falls on the shoulders of those willing to speak out against the prevailing wisdom, those like Ward Churchill, to fight our battles for us. Controversy is nothing new to me. I've run with some pretty interesting crowds in my past. I dabbled in some questionable ideologies in my younger days. I've rejected those, weighed them in the balance and found them wanting. But I still respect the rights of those that do follow them to do so. Attempts to thwart those rights appall me. This case isn't unique, it's just different. But not so different that I haven't seen it many times before. He's not the first person to be vilified by the media and public officials for his beliefs and undoubtedly won't be the last.

This isn't really about whether Churchill committed research misconduct, which he has disputed. I've listened to his side of the issue and found his remarks compelling. It's about freedom; academic freedom and the freedom of speech. This is the bigger principle we need to consider. Yes, his credibility has all but disappeared for many. Will he be exonerated and have his credibility return? Perhaps, but for me his credibility rests not on the outcome of the committee findings, but on his willingness to take up a fight that could impact us all. How all of you feel about it is up to you. My hope is that you think about not only at what has been placed inside the box before you, but that you think outside that box as well; to question the prevailing wisdom. If not now, when?

Any of you reading this, who also write an op-ed of your own, including myself, may some day be subjected to similar treatment. Do we want to tread lightly when it comes to the choice of words we use? Professor Churchill may be more of an in your face type of writer than most of us, but isn't that exactly the type of speech we need to protect the most? I've never met Professor Churchill, and have no idea if he is guilty of any charges or not, but the media circus surrounding this affair has peaked my interest. The fact that he is being tried, convicted, and sentenced in the court of public opinion, for making a questionable statement peaked my interest. The fact that he called into question, the prevailing wisdom about "why they hate us" peaked my interest.

I e-mailed Professor Churchill last Friday to get the latest update. I received a reply from his spokesperson who said it will likely be another month before the results are released, and that would still only be a recommendation. The final outcome will be in CU President Hank Brown's hands. The final outcome for our freedom to speak as we wish is still up for grabs. How many times must we allow the voices of reason, even in your face voices, to be silenced before we no longer have the right to question that silencing? I hope the truth is allowed to come out, what ever that truth might be, but I pray the battle doesn't stop there. It can't stop there.
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Mark Petersen has a B. A. in Speech Communications/Public Address & Rhetoric and is currently a Master of Humanities candidate in the Interdisciplinary Studies Department of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Denver. His writing and (more...)
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