2005: Ward Churchill
In an in-depth interview, Ward Churchill speaks on his writing, the media and the solution to terrorism
Feb. 10, 2005It started when a group of conservative students from Hamilton College in New York, hoping to block University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill’s scheduled talk at their school, protested an essay Churchill had written on Sept. 11, 2001. In the essay, titled “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” Churchill, an American Indian activist and scholar, framed the terrorists’ attacks as inevitable, the natural result of years of oppressive U.S. policies, which he outlined at length. He also compared the stockbrokers, lawyers and government employees who died in the attacks to Nazi “technocrat” Adolf Eichmann for their role in supporting U.S. actions abroad.
The students’ protest caught the attention of rightwing pundits, who pounced on Churchill and his controversial essay with rabid ferocity. The result was a national furor that finally diverted attention away from the football scandal of the year before. For weeks, the corporate media fanned the flames of rage, even questioning Churchill’s ethnicity. Paula Zahn interviewed Churchill — but barely let him speak. MSNBC, Fox and MTV carried the story. Denver talk radio couldn’t get enough of the topic, one radio host declaring Churchill’s essay treasonous and suggesting that Churchill be executed.
Media attention prompted reactions from members of Congress, who contacted Gov. Bill Owens, demanding a response. Owens, in turn, condemned Churchill’s writings and called for university officials to fire him — something he later tried to deny. The Colorado General Assembly then picked up the issue and passed a resolution renouncing Churchill’s point of view, and the CU Board of Regents held a special meeting and apologized to the nation for the essay. Then they authorized a committee to investigate his scholarship to see whether he could be fired. The situation eventually prompted the resignation of former CU President Betsy Hoffman.
In the midst of the controversy and before CU fired him, Boulder Weekly met with Churchill at his home and interviewed him about his essay, the role the media played in vilifying him and the best ways for the United States to respond to terrorism. Rather than paraphrasing the interview, the paper printed it in Q-and-A format so that his answers to our questions would be untainted by interpretation.
The story was immediately picked up nationwide by alternative newsweeklies and eventually made its way into a journalism textbook. But the controversy surrounding Churchill continued to grow.
Faculty investigators eventually alleged that Churchill had committed acts of academic misconduct, including plagiarism and fabrication. But of all the faculty who served on the three committees that reviewed the case, the majority recommended a sanction other than dismissal. Ignoring that determination, former CU President Hank Brown and the regents decided to fire him.
He sued the university, claiming the firing was retaliation for his essay, his free speech. A jury found in favor of Churchill last spring, and awarded him $1. But a judge reversed that finding, ruling that the regents enjoy governmental immunity in such cases.