Should Ward Churchill be Fired?

Bruce Fein argues that “CU would be perfectly within its rights if it fired Ward Churchill,” a legal argument that I’m not qualified to or interested in debating. As to whether he should be terminated, though, Fein offers only this:

Rational discourse and enlightened government would be blunted if the likes of Churchill dominated the faculty. The youth of America is too important for the university to tolerate the professor as an example for students to emulate. Indeed, the purpose of free speech – to make the deliberative forces prevail over the arbitrary – would be advanced by returning Churchill to private pursuits funded by private resources. And freedom of speech would rejoice, not weep.

Of course, as the huge swarm over his remarks made clear, the likes of Churchill don’t dominate the faculty. Contrary to mythology, Churchill is not representative of the academy. While it’s true that college faculties almost everywhere are well to the left of the community, the vast majority are serious scholars and teachers who operate well within the bounds of civil discourse.

Eugene Volokh makes an eloquent case why Ward shouldn’t be let go:

Ward Churchill, a professor at the University of Colorado, has applauded the slaughter of those murdered in the World Trade Center attacks: He called them “little Eichmanns,” and suggested that their deaths were a fitting penalty for their supposed complicity in America’s supposed crimes. This is a morally depraved view, and deserves the harshest condemnation from all decent people.

Nonetheless, Churchill ought not be fired from his tenured professorship for this view. Justice Hugo Black was right to say that First Amendment rights “must be accorded to the ideas we hate or sooner or later they will be denied to the ideas we cherish.” And the same is true of broader academic freedom principles, which flow from not just from the First Amendment rights of public university employees, but also from their tenure contracts and from professional standards of academic freedom.

If the Ward Churchills of the world are fired for their speech, disgusting as it is, that would be a perfect precedent for broader speech suppression in the future. Left-wing faculties and university administrations would find it much easier to fire right-wing professors for far less offensive statements, for instance for serious and valuable (even if sometimes misguided) challenges to the orthodox views on sexual orientation, sex or race. Given the political complexion of universities these days, this will end up happening to conservative professors more often than to liberals.

At the same time, other faculties and administrations – perhaps with the prodding of overzealous legislators – could use the precedent to fire even decent, serious critics of American foreign policy. In a legal and political system built on analogy and precedent, narrow restrictions on free speech do lead to larger ones. It’s better to tolerate occasional fools and supporters of evil than to license universities to impose their orthodoxies on all their faculty members.

Furthermore, one could argue that, in small doses, these types of remarks actually serve the interests of the academy. I’m guessing that CU students are debating the issues that Churchill raised much more vigorously than before, often with the guidance of their other professors. Most students are bright enough and sufficiently independent minded to dismiss Churchill’s arguments as the vile rantings they are. My guess is that Churchill’s remarks, far from turning students into raving America haters, have unwittingly caused hundreds of students to critically examine their pre-existing patriotism and come away with it bolstered.

(In a related blog post, Volokh offers arguments as to why the professoriate is different from other jobs.)

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael says:

    Volokh’s opinions are always so well-thought-out that I don’t even try to argue against them. With Eugene Volokh, you usually have to just accept that he’s right! 🙂

  2. Ol' BC says:

    Just when you think you’ve heard all about this story, THE BARON, uncovered more. This guy isn’t only nuts – he’s dangerous!!!

  3. Bithead says:

    The likes of Churchill may not dominate the faculty of our schools but I fail to see how that enters the question of if he should be fired or not.

    But let’s face it, gang; Churchill’s comments had they been made by a conservtaive, would have had the leftists howling “hate speech”… and he’d be looking for a job before the echo died.

    And let’s remove something from the discussion right now; this is most decidedly NOT a free speech issue. It would be, if the government had arrested him. (And isn’t that ironic? They’d likely be prompting the arrest under ‘Hate Speech’)

    But that’s not what’s up here. This is simply a employer/employee relationship run afoul by Churchill running his mouth.

    Can this guy.

  4. Bachbone says:

    Falsifying a resume is grounds for dismissal. If he isn’t part Native American, yet claimed to be, that is grounds for being fired. Does the university have the guts to do it?

  5. James Joyner says:

    That’s a separate issue, entirely. I’d argue, though, that since a state university (indeed, no institution receiving public funds) may legally discriminate on the basis of race in hiring, it would be difficult for CU to maintain that they hired him, in part, because he was Amerindian.

  6. dw says:

    I’m a CU grad, and I know that Churchill isn’t going to be fired.

    You see, 13 years ago Bill McCartney sat in a press conference in a Colorado sweatshirt and said that “homosexuality… is an abomination of almighty God.” And there was a massive outcry over it, because Bill McCartney, private citizen, was at a press conference dressed as Bill McCartney, head football coach, and saying what on campus was considered hate speech. In the end, the president called him on the carpet and told him to never represent any of his Promise Keepers stuff as coming from Bill McCartney, head football coach.

    Firing Churchill after what happened to McCartney would do two things: Give the appearance that athletic staff have a longer leash than tenured professors, and give the appearance of a bias against the far left but deference to the far right. The result would be a faculty rebellion. They came very close to it when the Colorado Legislature tried to impose what would have essentially been a “conservative quota” the last couple of years.

    Professor Volokh is dead on with this issue: Canning Churchill would effectively open the door to a purge of the conservatives by the liberals on campus. Universities need a diversity of ideas to survive. You start firing people because they’re out of the general populace’s philogical mores, you run the risk of creating an academia that is inflexible and uncreative. And that would certainly doom the United States in research globally.

    And that idiot above who wants him fired has never worked in a university.

  7. dw says:

    And on this “he’s not an Indian” thing: He is, but not a Keetoowah Cherokee. A 3/16 blood quantum, though, is above the 1/16 required for the “regular” Cherokee Nation rolls. I should know — I was put on the Cherokee rolls when I was a kid, even with 1/16.

    I think he said something about wanting to be identified at Keetoowah because they are more “hard-line.” Sounds like someone wants to hand with the cool kids.

  8. IrateMoFo says:

    You cannot have an intelligent discussion about a subject unless you have the facts straight. A whole shipload of what is being said about what Ward Churchill “supposedly” said is based on a MIS-reading and a MIS-representation of what he ACTUALLY said. Strongly suggest going DIRECTLY to the source and checking out what he REALLY said BEFORE you put your mouth in gear. – There appears to be a stupidity epidemic sweeping America! Don’t be the next victim.

  9. Halina Minadeo says:

    Regarding Ward Churchill’s native ancestry, I just found a link that claims that genetic tests have proven that he is indeed of native origin. Can this site be legitimate?