I got the news about Ward Churchill’s big victory over the University of Colorado (don’t let the small size of the damage award fool you; money is rarely a significant issue in First Amendment cases, and the way is now clear for him to get his job back) while traveling to a military-law conference, and it was a matter of some discussion amongst my fellow JAG attorneys. When asked about the case, I shared three thoughts:
1. If the university did fire him because of (or “substantially” because of) his protected speech, then I’m glad he won. Professors’ academic freedom is under assault, with universities seeming to take the position that they essentially “own” the speech of their employees. At this very moment, ADF’s Center for Academic Freedom is representing conservative professors who have suffered from reprehensible free-speech violations. I’m glad to see the First Amendment protected — and professors’ rights vindicated — even if it took the likes of Ward Churchill to do it.
2. While the banking and automotive industries spiral into the abyss, the outrage industry is here to stay. Ward Churchill is only relevant to our lives because we live in a world where “shocking” or “provocative” speech always finds a ready audience for people willing to be shocked or provoked. Churchill’s ideas are so bizarre, so demented, that they should be greeted with the same level of respect (and outrage) that we greet the ravings of an unbalanced homeless man we pass on the street. It is simply a fact that our outrage — and our outrage alone — is the fuel for his engine of fame.
3. Ironically enough (and we should never lose sight of this fact), Ward Churchill existed as a professor and department chair only because universities systematically violate other individuals’ free-speech rights. Does anyone think that — in a true marketplace of ideas, where the best job candidates (regardless of ideology) are welcome to apply — that a man with a potentially fraudulent resume, only a master’s degree from a third (or fourth) tier school, and a tendency toward plagiarism could actually get a tenure-track job? Could that same person also become a department chair? Of course not. But in the “no conservatives need apply” world of the modern public university, Churchill’s ideology (and his willingness to “speak nonsense to power”) was perhaps his primary qualification.