Free Speech and Ward Churchill

What about free speech for the rest of us?

by Ari Armstrong

Ward Churchill wants his job back. To quickly review, before Ward Churchill became a professor, he copied and sold another artist’s work under his own name. Then he got a tenured job at the University of Colorado, Boulder, without appropriate credentials, on the pretext that he is American Indian. He is not.

After Churchill wrote an essay comparing some victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to Nazis, the University of Colorado discovered that Churchill had also fabricated claims and plagiarized in his academic work. CU fired him in 2007.

On April 2, a jury found that CU had wrongly gone after Churchill for his essay on 9/11. An article in the Denver Post claimed that CU failed “to protect Ward Churchill’s free speech.” David Lane, Churchill’s persuasive lawyer, called CU’s Board of Regents “civil rights violators” and declared the verdict a victory for the First Amendment, the Post reported.

But who will defend free speech for the rest of us? Where is Lane’s outrage over the violations of free speech of those Colorado taxpayers forced, against their will, to subsidize Churchill’s fraud?

The First Amendment protects us from government censorship. If you write an essay, and the government beats down your door and arrests you for it, or seizes and destroys copies of the essay, or otherwise forcibly prevents you from speaking, that’s censorship.

The First Amendment is not a job protection act. It does not say that employers must allow their employees to say whatever they wish on the job. For instance, newspapers hire and fire writers based on the contents of their work. Many newspapers also restrict the off-duty speech of their writers. An employee of the Denver Post caught plagiarizing would be sent packing — even if that writer wrote controversial material and wore cool sunglasses with long hair.

Tenure is a contract, and Churchill was protected by that, though tenure does not protect academic fraud. Where does the idea come from that this was a First Amendment case?

The only plausible argument linking Churchill’s employment to the First Amendment is that various politicians, including former Governor Bill Owens, called for Churchill’s firing based on the 9/11 essay. And the state government helps fund CU. That tax funding is both a carrot and a stick, carrying the implicit threat that state funding is subject to politics.

CU reports that, for 2008-09, the state funded 8.5 percent of CU’s budget. Student tuition and fees, on the other hand, funded 41.3 percent. Over a fraction of its funding, then, CU accepts political oversight.

If we want real academic freedom, in which university policy is completely separated from politics, the solution is obvious. Stop forcing taxpayers to subsidize CU. Make all contributions voluntary. Then the governor and other politicians could rant and rave all they wanted; they could not control university policy.

The right of free speech entails the right not to speak and the right not to finance ideas you find repugnant. You have the right to purchase copies of the Denver Post, but the Post may not force you to buy copies. You have the right to use your own resources and those voluntarily given to you to speak. You have no right to forcibly seize the resources of others to speak.

When politicians take your money by force to fund ideas with which you disagree, they violate your rights of free speech.

But the Colorado taxpayer will never get a day in court.