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|April 9--15, 2009
Back to Letters
The right verdict
by Pamela White
British orator, author and Prime Minister Winston Churchill once famously said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.” Though this isn’t always true, it’s often true. For a nation that is ostensibly founded on a set of shared ideals, we seem to have a very hard time agreeing what those ideals are or coming to grips with what they mean, which is one reason we sometimes do stupid things.
One of the five provisions of the First Amendment — among the most noble of our shared ideals — states, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Sounds simple: free speech, free press.
When everyone is getting along, we as a society have little problem understanding this. But give us a good reason to argue and suddenly the concepts of free speech and freedom of the press are open to very subjective interpretation.
In his essay “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” Ward Churchill — no relation to Winston — had the gall to call bureaucrats (not janitors or food-service workers or children) who died at the World Trade Center “Little Eichmanns,” likening them to Nazi pencil-pusher Adolf Eichmann. While reporters on television kept calling the attacks “senseless,” Churchill tried to argue that, given U.S. foreign policy, the attacks made a lot of sense, particularly to the terrorists.
And at first nothing happened.
A few years later, conservative students at Hamilton College in New York went on an Internet fishing expedition in search of reasons to discredit Churchill so that they could get his talk at their college canceled. They discovered his otherwise obscure essay and made a stink. The result was national furor and media chaos.
Paula Zahn interviewed Churchill but did most of the speaking herself. MSNBC, Fox and MTV carried the story, endlessly voicing righteous indignation. Denver talk radio went wild, one radio host declaring Churchill’s essay treasonous and suggesting that Churchill be executed.
Media attention prompted reactions from members of Congress, who contacted former Gov. Bill Owens, demanding a response. Owens, ever a man of high principles, condemned Churchill’s writings and called for university officials to fire him. The Colorado General Assembly then picked up the issue and passed a resolution renouncing Churchill’s point of view. Then the CU Board of Regents held a special meeting and apologized to the nation for the essay, assuring folks that they would investigate Churchill to determine whether he could be fired.
It was in this environment of rabid fury that CU began to explore allegations of academic misconduct against Churchill. Nothing any CU representative can say changes this key fact, and everything that happened after this point is irrelevant because of this fact.
Owens wanted him fired. The media wanted him fired (or, in one case, hanged). The Regents wanted him fired. And CU found a way to fire him.
The idealistic American response to Churchill’s essay should have been the classic, “I disagree strongly with what you say, but I’d die for your right to say it.” But it wasn’t.
The idealistic American response to Owens, the media and the Board of Regents ought to have been, “Shame on you!” But it wasn’t.
Instead, Americans ignored the ideals they supposedly hold dear, all but lynching the person who exercised free speech and praising those who sought to violate both the rules of college tenure and the First Amendment to punish free speech.
As a jury of our peers justly determined last week when it weighed this evidence, Churchill was fired primarily because of something he wrote in an essay — speech that ought to have been protected by the highest laws of our land.
You’d think the verdict would settle the issue, but there’s still a lot of grumbling, particularly on the Internet. Apparently, a lot of people can’t seem to grasp the basic fact that CU administrators set out to fire Churchill because of something he wrote and, thus, violated his rights.
Maybe the problem is that too many Americans don’t understand the First Amendment. Just in case, here’s the First Amendment for Idiots version as it pertains to free speech: You have to put up with what other people say or write even if it makes you mad, even if you want to pull their hair out, even if you think they’re wrong. You don’t have to like what they say or write, but you have to put up with it.
That’s right. Free speech and freedom of the press don’t just apply to people who believe the same things you believe. They also apply to people who hold opposing views and whose points of view shock you, offend you and piss you the hell off.
Because public and media response played such a big role in driving the entire anti-Churchill frenzy, the jury’s verdict should be viewed not only as a chastisement of CU’s administration and the Board of Regents, but also as a rebuke of the media and of the people themselves.
Perhaps now CU will finally do the right thing — having tried everything else — and reinstate Churchill. That remains to be seen.
But what of the jury’s ruling that Churchill should be paid $1 in damages? Perhaps that’s a sign of how much they valued his opinion.
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