Dr. David Shevin photograph

Home To Roost

March 1, 2005

Let's start with the thesis: If you know and love the first amendment, then now is the time to find your forum and say so. Repeatedly.

Doesn't this take us directly to the much-publicized case of University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill. Churchill, a discerning scholar of international law and chair of his school's Ethnic Studies program, wrote a short essay in 2001 reflecting on Malcolm X's famous remark about the 1963 Kennedy assassination. Malcolm, observing the administration's extralegal adventurism in Africa and Cuba, said that the tragedy was a case of "chickens coming home to roost". Churchill, surveying the destructiveness of the Gulf war and the tragic toll of embargo on Iraq's children, wrote that chickens more recently "came home to roost in a very big way at the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center" and in the Pentagon as well.

Furthering his argument, Churchill referred back to the image of the bureaucrat Eichmann on trial in Israel, and Hannah Arendt's reportage of the event personifying "the banality of evil". Observing that so much unthinkable injury came from a fellow making up train schedules and arranging details, Arendt reminded us that those who keep the machinery of destruction moving are not necessarily monsters. She reminded us that all evil needs to flourish is for functionaries to keep their silence.

In Churchill's argument, the purveyors of neocolonial trade policies, a good many of whom worked in the Twin Towers, were "little Eichmanns", forwarding a system with far-reaching and sometimes terrifying consequences. This is exactly what made the towers a military target in a new military-industrial alignment. The essay was a supportable argument, and consistent with the strident analysis Churchill has brought to other issues of law and perception.

I like Churchill and how he argues. One of his essays (Crimes Against Humanity") is in the first year reader that we use at my college. Students enjoy following the challenges from past history, focusing on the post-World War II era and establishment of an International Court of Justice. In our textbook essay, Churchill draws an extended comparison of the holocaust in Europe and that of the American Indian. His argument in both that one and in "Some People Push Back" looks to that era sixty years ago for models of acceptable international behavior, then asks for evenhanded interpretation of these laws.

How then, after decades of presenting his vision of fairness, does the professor wind up in the middle of such a firestorm? The answer can be explored through a single evening of recent C-Span programming. Good for C-Span! The network decided that issues of academic freedom were significant enough to merit some programming hours, so in succession, they broadcast two programs. The first was Churchill discussing his essay with an auditorium full of students on his home campus. Churchill was as you might expect: strident, clear, and unapologetic. The next broadcast was one of the professor's accusers, David Horowitz, speaking to a gathering of young Republicans.

Horowitz was accusatory and impatient, anxious to see that Churchill, and other professors like him, should be silenced. He called on the University of Colorado to revoke the professor's tenure and remove him from his office. He then forwarded his organization's "Academic Bill of Rights", a document calling for teachers to present opposing views to their own every time a topic of controversy arises in the classroom. (I assume, for example, that when I teach a Holocaust tale from Elie Wiesel, I would then be duty-bound to teach neo-Nazi literature and assure my students that denying the Holocaust is an equally acceptable viewpoint.

Even more stupefying was Horowitz's vision of the college classroom. He reminded his audience that their professors owe them quite a lot. Look at the lives they have, he reminded them. "All of them are making six-figure salaries, and they only work nine hours a week." (I have been teaching college classes pretty steadily since my first year of graduate work in 1974. How can I get me one of those jobs?)

So here we are, four years after the controversial essay's publication, and suddenly the writing is the topic of all the talking heads and politicians coast-to-coast. The governor of Colorado has called on the University of Colorado to "terminate" Churchill. The whole cabal of conservative talking heads have been in a blood red heat, not only calling for the revocation of the teacher's tunure, but wishing violence upon the man.

This blood-in-the-water reaction has emboldened other politicians with swollen right ears. Here in Ohio, Senator Larry Mumper testified just last week before his body's education committee, where he is introducing the "Academic Bill of Rights", hoping to make the proposal a state law, and to begin governing classroom speech under the rule of the courts rather than the campuses. It has been fascinating to watch this becoming an issue in our state. Here, we have an issue uniting college faculties and administrations alike. No one wants this kind of interference in an already well-juried academic process, full of systems for checks, appeals, and balances.

The Ohio American Civil Liberties Union has weighed in with the academies, characterizing the bill as a "misleading, politically motivated attempt to restrict academic freedom and free speech." Colorado Governor Owens has made the goals of these restrictions clear. The orchestrated attack constitutes an attack on university systems of tenure, the one guarantee teachers have for the protection of due process in performing their jobs. If we take that system from the campuses and throw the decisions to our legislatures and courts, then the eras of Big Brother and Big Government are only just commencing.

So, friends, choose your forum. If you love the First Amendment, this is the time to stand up and be counted.

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