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The People, the President and Ward Churchill

For those of us who have spent time on the college campus or have resided in a university community, living with questionable opinions of “radical” professors and students is not unusual. The Mighty Ado over the University of Colorado’s Ward Churchill would barely raise a ripple among those accustomed to cantankerous academic debate.

The same may not be said for many college and university administrators and boards of regents, however, when the spotlight of controversy (complete with angry phone calls, letters and e-mails) is turned on a campus by an incensed public imbued with near-lynch-mob outrage. Frequently timid, often advised by overly-protective attorneys, campus boards and administrators may react by giving in to a managerial “retaliatory” instinct that may stem primarily from personal irritation that their lives have been upset by uncomfortable controversy, like flea bites inflamed.

Therefore, the University of Colorado will “investigate” Churchill’s written record and statements in an effort to see if cause exists for his dismissal. Although the university campus should be the one safe place where opinions and ideas can be freely discussed and debated short of killing the messenger, several institutions have already cancelled previously-scheduled appearances by the Colorado professor. Spirited courage to defend freedom of speech may not always be an academic virtue.

To those who might wish to be better informed about the ado over Ward Churchill, I strongly recommend that readers of this column hear Americans express themselves over Denver’s talk radio stations. For several nights, I have tuned in to KGO-AM (850 on the AM dial) and listened to the voices of Americans as the rhetoric denouncing Churchill has progressively gone from “the man’s an idiot” to “college students believe whatever their professors tell them” to “the man should be fired immediately — no investigation necessary” to “he’s a traitor who deserves the death penalty.”

Seldom during these hostility sessions will the talk show host hear from those who support Churchill’s right to express his personal views, and seldom will the host challenge the callers or question their dismal understanding of “free speech,” “academic freedom” and the central principles of the First Amendment. Thus callers are led to believe that their hysterical points of view are correct and have essential validity. On nationally syndicated programs such as those led by Hannity, O’Reilly and their kin, many who might actually defend with reason the concept of freedom of speech are demeaned, ignored, shouted down, ridiculed. Apparently the irony and hypocrisy of this situation is lost on faithful listeners whose blood lust all but cries, “String ’em up!”

Recently during an Omaha appearance, CBS News reported President Bush as saying, “We love free speech in America.” In addition, the president has proclaimed the need for free speech in a new Iraqi government, and during the recent campaign season his administration established “Free Speech Zones” where protestors could protest to their hearts’ content. So: as an admitted enthusiast for freedom of speech, President Bush should put an end to the nonsense by publicly proclaiming Churchill’s right to speak his mind free from intimidating threats and free from concern about losing his employment with the university.

On the other hand, if Churchill is fired for expressing his controversial views, doesn’t it follow logically that he (or anyone else who is fired for espousing opinions) should be permanently denied all future employment as well? After all, those opinions, once reported or published, are part of the individual’s “public record,” and just as with the Bush remark that “We love free speech in America,” the record and the controversy live on long after the speaker has turned out the lights and left the building.

DOUG GIEBEL is a writer and analyst who lives in Big Sandy, Montana. His essay on non-proliferation issues will be published this spring by Canada’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies. He welcomes comment at dougcatz@ttc-cmc.net

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