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Jury: University of Colorado Wrongly Fired Prof Ward Churchill
Reinstatement at CU to be decided at future hearing
The University of Colorado unlawfully fired Ward Churchill for expressing his political beliefs, a jury decided this afternoon.
The jury of four women and two men awarded the former ethnic studies professor $1 in damages. The dollar amount was largely a symbolic move because the judge instructed the jury to award that amount if they ruled in Churchill's favor but found no damages.
Chief Denver District Judge Larry Naves will decide at a separate hearing whether Churchill, 61, is reinstated at CU or given a lump sum of money instead.
Shortly after the verdict was announced, Churchill told reporters that getting his job back was more important than any monetary award.
"I didn't ask for money," said Churchill, who was joined by his attorney, David Lane. "What was asked for and what was delivered was justice."
Ken McConnellogue, spokesman for the CU system, said the $1 award offered "some vindication."
"Mr. Lane told the jury to send a message with a monetary award, and I believe they sent a message with that $1 award," McConnellogue said.
The jury's verdict in favor of Churchill, which came after 10 hours of deliberation, brings to a conclusion a four-year saga that began with the widespread discovery of an essay Churchill had written about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
The case prompted heated debates in the media and on college campuses around the country on the meaning of academic freedom, the limits of free expression and the role of tenure at universities.
In the controversial piece, which Churchill penned during the hours after the attacks, he lambasted American foreign and economic policies and called some of the victims in New York's twin towers "little Eichmanns" -- a reference to the infamous Nazi bureaucrat.
The essay, which remained under the radar until a student at New York's Hamilton College complained about it in advance of a scheduled speech by the professor in January 2005, sparked an immediate firestorm across the country.
CU was bombarded with e-mails and phone calls demanding it fire Churchill for expressing anti-American hate speech and supporting terrorism.
Contributors threatened to withhold donations from the school and parents threatened to send their children to other universities.
Former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens said Churchill should be fired and a growing chorus of right-wing pundits and media figures joined in the call for the professor's ouster.
The school launched an investigation into the professor's essay in February 2005 to determine whether it was protected by the First Amendment or whether it had caused enough harm to CU that it could be considered outside the bounds of legitimate expression by a public employee.
Six weeks later, the university ruled that the essay was protected speech. But by that time, CU had become aware of a number of allegations of academic misconduct against Churchill and began a separate probe to look into them.
In May 2006, an investigative committee under the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct ruled that Churchill had committed multiple acts of plagiarism, fabrication and falsification in his scholarship on American Indian history.
The regents, in an 8 to 1 vote, fired him 14 months later.
Churchill filed a civil suit the day after he was dismissed by CU, accusing the university of trumping up charges of misconduct against him in order to find a legal avenue by which to remove him from the faculty.
He claimed in his suit that he was actually fired for writing the controversial essay on 9/11 -- a violation of his First Amendment rights -- and that he deserved reinstatement on the Boulder campus.
The 3 1/2-week long trial saw testimony from 45 witnesses, including dozens of professors, a handful of regents, two past CU presidents, the former Colorado governor, and Churchill himself, who testified over a two-day period.
Lane, the former professor's attorney, spent much of his time during the trial making the case that CU had it out for Churchill from the very beginning.
He equated the furor over the essay to a bloodthirsty "howling mob" gathered at the gates of CU demanding his client's head, a general rage that he said forced CU to do whatever it could to rid itself of a faculty member who had become a thorn in its side.
Lane hammered the CU regents for making statements and giving interviews four years ago -- in the midst of the furor over the 9/11 essay -- that indicated they wanted Churchill gone. Some of those same regents ultimately voted to fire the professor in the summer of 2007.
Former Regent Jerry Rutledge testified that he would have immediately fired Churchill for the essay if there had been a legal way to do it.
"Gee, maybe this 9/11 essay had a little something to do with him getting fired," Lane said sarcastically to the jury before it was handed the case. "Maybe huh? You think?"
Lane said CU established a "kangaroo court" to convict Churchill of academic misconduct, a charge that he characterized as consisting of three bad footnotes out of 30 years of scholarship.
He said the CU committees that evaluated Churchill's work were stacked with handpicked "pet poodles" and biased faculty members who did what they had to in order to fire the professor.
CU's attorney, Patrick O'Rourke, called Churchill's free expression claims a "fraud." He ridiculed the notion that CU was able to somehow get 20 faculty members to all come together in a conspiracy to knock one of their colleagues down.
"Professor Churchill is trying to use the First Amendment to excuse his fraud," he said during his closing argument.
O'Rourke said the university had every right to inquire whether Churchill's 9/11 essay had caused it harm and disturbed its operations.
In the end, CU ruled that the essay was protected and from there on out, it was no longer a factor in Churchill's fate, O'Rourke said.
Members of the various committees that examined Churchill's scholarship were called to the stand to tell the jury why they deemed the professor's work to be not only substandard, but to represent a deliberate pattern of misconduct.
Professor after professor testified that fabrication, falsification, plagiarism and ghostwriting -- where one attaches another's name to a piece of written work -- are simply not acceptable practices in academia.
"He just cheated," testified CU sociology professor Michael Radelet, who served on the investigative committee.
And O'Rourke said Churchill hasn't acknowledged his behavior or apologized for it.
"What we saw is that Ward Churchill can justify everything and explain nothing," he told the jury. "What we have seen at the end of the day is that in Ward Churchill's world there are no standards and no accountability."