Bad scholarship or the wrong kind of politics?

August 17, 2007

The firing of an academic has thrown the spotlight on freedom of expression in the US. Jon Marcus reports.

If American academics were looking for the perfect representative around which to construct a case for academic freedom, Ward Churchill probably wasn't it.

The University of Colorado professor of ethnic studies was found to have plagiarised, falsified and fabricated some of his research, according to a two-year university investigation. Even his claim of American Indian ancestry is in doubt. The university fired him last month for academic misconduct.

But the unapologetic Professor Churchill also is a lightning rod because of his political opinions. He blamed American foreign policy for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and called the victims "little Eichmanns", a reference to the Nazi bureaucrat who managed mass deportations and extermination camps.

Some of his supporters have, if grudgingly, agreed with Professor Churchill that he is himself a victim, sacked primarily because of his controversial comments. No matter how egregious, they say, the remarks were protected by the First Amendment - the free-speech provision of the US Constitution (see box) - and by the principle of academic freedom.

It is a principle to which academics have resorted more and more often in the polarised and partisan time since 2001. And Professor Churchill has become its unlikely symbol.

"Firing Professor Churchill in these circumstances does not send a message about academic rigour and standards of professional integrity," said Aaron Barlow, a blogger and a faculty member at the New York City College of Technology. "It sends a warning to the academic community that politically unpopular dissenters speak out at their peril."

But if more and more academics have drawn angry public condemnation because of comments considered unpatriotic or inappropriate since September 11, the intensifying spotlight on the issue has also made universities more wary of firing them. Caught between warring constituencies of opposite political stripes, university presidents have been quick to criticise unruly faculty, but - until Professor Churchill - have otherwise seldom done anything more than reprimand them.

When a University of New Mexico history professor joked on the afternoon of September 11 itself that anyone who blew up the Pentagon would get his vote, he was reprimanded but not fired.

And at Northwestern University, the president routinely condemns the views of a Holocaust denier on the faculty but defends his right to hold those views. Students who prefer not to enrol in the professor's classes are given the option of being taught by someone else.

"The weeks that followed the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon could well have brought out the worst in university administrators, governing boards, alumni and legislatures," said Robert O'Neil, former president of the University of Virginia and director of its Thomas Jefferson Centre for Protection of Free Expression. "Many of us feared that's just what would happen, though mercifully it did not."

If anything, speakers on American campuses may have been given more leeway recently. Over the past few decades, the courts have tended to side with universities that fired or suspended faculty or staff for doing such things as overemphasising sex in a health course, using profane language in a classroom, protesting against the Vietnam War and discussing religious beliefs in a physiology class.

The courts ruled that a university's interest as an employer outweighed a teacher's free-speech interest, that profanity is not necessarily protected by the First Amendment when it does not constitute speech about a matter of public concern, and that universities can exercise control over speech in school-sponsored activities so long as their actions "are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns".

Professor Churchill has insisted that he was fired not because of pedagogical shortcomings, as his university alleges, but "because of statements I made about US foreign policy that were clearly protected by the First Amendment".

He said the complaints about his scholarly research were a quibble over "nothing more than a few footnotes and questions of attribution".

"University of Colorado administrators have confirmed that they will shamelessly cater to political pressure, discarding the most basic principles of academic freedom in their attempt to silence me and discredit my work," he said.

Professor Churchill has sued, and some well-known academics have come to his defence. An advertisement in his support was published in The New York Review of Books, signed by Derrick Bell of New York University, Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Howard Zinn of Boston University and more than 400 other academics.

"The issues here have nothing to do with the quality of Ward Churchill's scholarship or his professional credentials," they wrote. "However one views his choice of words or specific arguments, he is being put in the dock solely for his radical critique of US history and present-day policy."

They were joined in their criticism by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Society of American Law Teachers. Even the committee that investigated Professor Churchill's academic lapses said it was uneasy about the timing of the inquiry, which was clearly triggered by his controversial statements.

"We believe the poisoned atmosphere in which this investigation was launched and the circumstances under which it was initiated have irretrievably tainted the process," said Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director.

An initial investigation concluded that Professor Churchill had every right to make the statements. But it unearthed troubling questions about his scholarship, which prompted a second probe and resulted in a damning 124-page report.

Bill Ritter, the Governor of Colorado, which underwrites the university, said the Churchill case was about academic misconduct, not academic freedom. "The character of his conduct is different from those things that are protected by the First Amendment," the governor said.

Still, the case has divided even civil libertarians.

"It's just bad scholarship to be supporting Churchill and saying that this is about the First Amendment," said Jessica Peck Corry, director of the Campus Accountability Project of the free-market Independence Institute. "He should have been fired long before September 11 even happened. Good professors should want Ward Churchill gone."

Ms Corry, a political strategist who has run for office as a Republican, dismisses the supportive stance taken by many leading academics. "Noam Chomsky and his peers came from the revolutionary period of the 1960s," she said.

"They love fighting against the establishment, and this is a well-publicised opportunity for them to do that."

But those scholars do not agree.

"The Churchill case is not an isolated incident but a concentrated example of a well-orchestrated campaign," they said, "which in fact aims to purge the universities of more radical thinkers and oppositional thought generally, and to create a climate of intimidation."

Nor is Dr O'Neil complacent. As the former chairman of the AAUP's Committee on Academic Freedom and National Security in Time of Crisis, he said he worried about new scrutiny of the publication of certain research, and restrictions on international scholars. "I should temper my optimism by noting that there have been and remain many causes for concern," he said.

THE FIRST AMENDMENT

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

ACADEMIC FREEDOM vs POLITICAL CENSORSHIP

Richard Berthold, history professor at the University of New Mexico, jokes in class that he would vote for anyone who blew up the Pentagon. He is reprimanded and removed from teaching first-years.

Kenneth Hearlson, a professor at Orange Coast Community College, is accused by Muslim students of calling them Nazis and terrorists. An investigation finds no evidence that he had made such comments but concludes that he was insensitive to Muslim students. He is reprimanded.

Several faculty at the City College of New York blame American colonialism for the September 11, 2001, attacks. They are criticised by the university's chancellor but defended by the vice-chairman of the board of trustees, former Yale University president Benno Schmidt, on the grounds that the First Amendment protects their right to free speech.

Nicholas De Genova, assistant professor of anthropology at Columbia University, says at a teach-in about the war in Iraq that he wishes for a million Mogadishus, a reference to a fatal ambush of US soldiers in Somalia. More than 100 congressmen call for his resignation. Although Columbia president Lee Bollinger criticises the remarks, he declines to take any action.

Federal prosecutors issue subpoenas to Drake University demanding a list of everyone who attended an anti-war conference there. After a public outcry, these are withdrawn.

Army intelligence agents question students and staff at the University of Texas at Austin about a conference on Islam. The Army is forced to apologise.

Hector Valenzuela, a tropical agriculture specialist at the University of Hawaii, claims he is threatened with a funding cut unless he stops speaking out for stricter regulation of genetically engineered crops. The university denies this.

Kevin MacDonald, a professor at California State University at Long Beach, has been widely criticised for work in which he claims Jews seek to undermine non Jewish populations in Europe and the US by pushing for liberal policies on immigration and diversity. His department posts a policy on its website that faculty should not allow their work "to be used to support groups that disseminate views of racial or ethnic superiority and/or racial or ethnic hatred".

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