Apr 3, 2009

Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say!

Embattled professor Ward Churchill recently won a wrongful termination suit against his former employer the University of Colorado. The jury verdict confirmed that Churchill had been fired over his controversial political beliefs stemming from an essay he wrote that went against the grain in critiquing American complicity in the attacks of September 11, 2001. While the verdict is a victory for free speech and academic freedom the jury only awarded Churchill $1 in damages. The verdict sends the message that while the jury agreed that Churchill's freedom of speech had been violated, the lack of any real amount being awarded for damages suggests that the jury was imposing its own punishment for Churchill's controversial political statements. I guess this is better than finding that the termination was not wrongful, but in the end it's certainly not something to get excited about. The powers that be still held serve.

The days post Sept. 11, 2001 are far behind us now and as time has passed many may have forgotten just how frightening things had become in this country. Not because of Bin Laden mind you, but because of all of the flag waving, overly patriotic, gung ho sentiments of uber nationalism that had surged throughout the country. Those in power used the events of 9/11 as an excuse to justify all sorts of infringements on civil liberties and free expression. Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer's admonition at the time that "all Americans" need to "watch what they say, watch what they do" sums up this stifling climate perfectly.

I remember being a guest on Politically Incorrect during this time immediately after Fleischer's wrath had been directed at host Bill Maher for some comments that he had made that were thought to be unpatriotic. People on the set of the show were shook. Everyone was walking on eggshells. You could cut the tension with a knife.

This political sentiment of repression trickled down from the corridors of power. The same sweep of reckless right wing emotion that outed Valerie Plame as a CIA agent and prompted the draconian Patriot Act into existence also lead to Churchill being booted from his tenured post at Colorado. Samuel Johnson's famous quote that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" is most certainly appropriate here.

While a university committee found inconsistencies in Churchill's research, the investigation itself was launched in response to the political outcries, both inside and outside the university, over his politics. The process was clearly tainted from the beginning. If there was a problem with Churchill's scholarship then the university should have uncovered this when he went up for tenure review. To uncover questions regarding Churchill's scholarship after the fact and under such a looming political cloud says that the university had not done their due diligence initially. It also speaks to the inadequacy of their tenure process.

Churchill has been accused of fabricating sources and other acts of intellectual fraudulence. If this is true it is most certainly not cool, but again, a thorough tenure review process should have turned up at least some hint of these discrepancies beforehand. To arrive at these accusations only after the political fallout from Churchill's non-PC statements about 9/11 is to sully the University of Colorado's academic integrity.

I am not naive. I have been a professor for the last 18 years of my life and a tenured professor for the last 12. I am not stupid enough to think that freedom of speech is a rock solid defense if you happen to say what might be considered the wrong thing at the wrong time. Freedom of expression sounds good in theory, but the reality is always a bit more complicated. Churchill wrote a controversial essay, saying the "wrong thing" at the "wrong time" and he was punished for his beliefs. Though the court verdict affirms the right to free expression in one sense the fact that this case actually ever made it to court in the first place is a strong indication of just how reactionary this country had become during the dreaded Bush years of our recent past. This sentiment is best summed up in a quote from a recent piece by Scott Horton in Harper's.

We may not have realized it at the time, but in the period from late 2001-January 19, 2009, this country was a dictatorship. The constitutional rights we learned about in high school civics were suspended. That was thanks to secret memos crafted deep inside the Justice Department that effectively trashed the Constitution. What we know now is likely the least of it.

The specious case against Churchill fits neatly into Horton's claim that we were for all intents and purposes living under in a dictatorship in post 9/11 America. It is during times of conflict that free expression is most important. If we are only free to speak as we choose in times of relative calm then the concept of free expression is really not free at all.

Let me be clear. Churchill is not a hero to me. The fact that such a case got this far speaks to the fact that Churchill didn't necessarily have his "shit together," as it were. If you are going to be someone who goes against the grain on purpose you need to be prepared for the aftermath. Churchill left himself exposed and he got popped accordingly. Nevertheless, the troubling political environment of post 9/11 America is the real crime here. Those who helped create this environment of utter repression are the ones who should be brought to trial.

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