Professor won't back down to statement comparing 9/11 victim to Nazis

By Noble Johns 

BOULDER, Colorado (BNW) -
- While I may not agree with Professor Ward Churchill's statement comparing the workers in the World Trade Center during 9/11 to the technocrats working for the German Nazi war machine, his comments do make sense and he has a right to say what he feels and believes. As a result, I may disagree with every word you may ever say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it: that is what Voltaire once said.

Moreover, Churchill has refused to apologize; on the contrary, he has threatened to sue the school if it fires him. No one has defended Churchill's statements, but some people have threatened him.

But nothing has incited more passion and outrage than Churchill, an ethnic studies professor whose comparison of World Trade Center victims to a notorious Nazi has led to death threats, arrests and condemnations by two governors. Talk-show hosts and lawmakers have vilified him as a hate-monger and the school is considering firing him.

Two students were arrested at a Board of Regents meeting last week and swastikas were spray-painted on Churchill's pickup truck.

On Monday, Colorado administrators announced they had canceled a speech by Churchill for Tuesday because of security concerns. Earlier this month, Hamilton College in upstate New York canceled a speech by Churchill because of death threats against the professor and its administrators.

"We feel that this is an extreme violation of our free speech rights," said Mo Wells, a member of the Colorado student group that organized Churchill's speech. The group planned to file a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the cancellation.

A university spokeswoman did not immediately return a message left after business hours.

"The university ... is obligated to provide security for Ward Churchill," David Lane, an attorney for the student group, told Denver station KDVR-TV. "They simply can't put a gag in his mouth by telling him, `Well, there are these violent wackos out there that want kill you so we're not going to let you give your speech."'

Start of the controversy

Just exactly how free Churchill -- as a tenured, taxpayer-supported professor -- is to speak his mind is the fundamental question being argued.

Churchill wrote an essay shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks comparing those killed to "little Eichmanns," because of their participation in what he called "the mighty engine of profit." Adolf Eichmann was the Nazi who organized plans to exterminate European Jews.

The essay, "Some People Push Back," attracted little notice until last month, after Churchill was invited to speak at Hamilton, a private liberal arts school. Hamilton professor Theodore Eismeier said he found the essay on the Internet during what he calls "a casual effort to learn more about Churchill."

In an e-mail to The Associated Press, Eismeier said he was alarmed by the "outlandish and odious rhetoric" and urged administrators to withdraw Churchill's invitation. When they did not, he alerted Ian Mandel, the editor of Hamilton's student newspaper who published a story about Churchill's writings on January 21.

Within days, the essay was national news. New York Gov. George Pataki called Churchill a "bigoted terrorist supporter" and the relative of one September 11 victim called him a "nut case." The Colorado Legislature branded the comments "evil and inflammatory," while Gov. Bill Owens called for his ouster.

Churchill has resigned as chairman of the ethnic studies department. School officials are reviewing his speeches and writings to determine whether he should be fired.

Chilling possibility

Civil liberties advocates say Churchill's comments would have provoked controversy in any era. But the massive loss of life on September 11 intensified the reaction, said Cathryn Hazouri, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.

The ACLU issued a statement defending Churchill's right to speak out and called on regents, legislators and the governor "to stop threatening Mr. Churchill's job because of the content of his opinions."

Scholars worry the backlash will leave other professors fearful of challenging conventional opinion.

"We recognize that academic freedom comes with limits, but we also know that any interference with academic freedom without strong cause sends a very chilling message to the entire academic community," said Barbara Bintliff, chairwoman of the Boulder Faculty Assembly.

David Horowitz, a champion of conservative causes who has long accused American universities of overstocking their faculties with leftists, said firing Churchill would violate his First Amendment rights and set a bad precedent.

He called instead for an inquiry into the university's hiring and promotion procedures "to see how Ward Churchill could get to the pinnacle of the faculty, to be the chair of an entire department."

"This isn't like a guy who was suddenly exposed," Horowitz said. "This is a guy who's been out in the open for 30 years and was promoted."

Still unrepentant

The Colorado professor who once compared some World Trade Center victims to a Nazi war criminal will be allowed to speak at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater next month, a decision the chancellor said was repugnant but necessary under First Amendment principles of free speech.

The decision Thursday sparked outrage among state lawmakers, who said they would ask the UW System president to intervene to block the speech by Ward Churchill.

UW-Whitewater Chancellor Jack Miller said in a statement he decided to honor an invitation for Churchill to speak at the campus 40 miles southeast of Madison despite the controversy over comments the University of Colorado professor made about the September 11 attacks.

Miller laid out requirements he said must be met to ensure the March 1 speech would go off as planned, including assurances the university can guarantee the safety of the campus, visitors and Churchill.

While calling Churchill's comments "grossly inappropriate," Miller said it would be up to students, staff and others to judge the professor's comments.

"I have worked to make an informed decision, not the popular or politically expedient one," Miller said.

He also said in a statement no taxpayer money will be used to pay Churchill's honorarium or travel expenses.

Republican State Rep. Steve Nass began circulating a resolution Thursday to condemn Miller's decision that he hoped the full Legislature would vote on next week. Nass questioned why the university would allow someone to speak who had engaged in what he called anti-American hate speech.

"The bottom line is common sense has to prevail here," said Nass, who graduated from Whitewater in 1978. "This is hate speech. The chancellor is saying it's OK to bring hate speech to the university so long as it does not cost the university money."

Churchill came under fire after it became widely reported that an essay he wrote likened workers in the World Trade Center to "little Eichmanns," a reference to Adolf Eichmann, who ensured the smooth running of the Nazi system.

Churchill made the comparison in an essay written hours after the 2001 attacks and later revised for a book.

The ethnic studies professor said in Boulder, Colorado, Tuesday that his essay referred to "technocrats" who participate in what he calls repressive American policies around the world.

The essay and follow-up book attracted little attention until Churchill was invited to speak last month at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, which later canceled his talk out of security concerns. Other schools have canceled planned speeches by the professor because of similar worries.

Churchill, a longtime American Indian Movement activist, was invited to speak at the campus six months ago on the topic of racism and American Indians. He did not return a call The Associated Press left at the university Thursday or respond to an e-mail.

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