February 15, 2005
Chancellor Phillip P. DiStefano
Members of the Board of Regents
University of Colorado
Re: Professor Ward Churchill
Dear Chancellor DiStefano and Members of the Board:
We write to express concern about the university's response to the public controversy over views expressed by Professor Ward Churchill. In particular, we are troubled by reports that the Board of Regents and Chancellor have launched a "thorough examination of Professor Churchill's writings, speeches, tape recordings and other works," searching for "cause for dismissal."
The outcry against Professor Churchill is based on an essay published three years ago, in which he suggested that the 9/11 attacks were retribution for U.S. foreign policy for which the victims shared some responsibility, and particularly for his use of the phrase, "little Eichmanns," to refer to WTC victims. Notwithstanding the insensitive language, the issue Churchill raises about citizens' responsibilities for the actions of their elected officials is surely a valid subject for academic discussion.
This extraordinary review of Professor Churchill, a tenured professor, alone constitutes an infringement of academic freedom. Churchill is being investigated solely because of his controversial views, and any action taken in response will therefore be tainted. As the Colorado Supreme Court observed:
… teachers should be free to engage in the exchange of diverse ideas on controversial topics, both within and outside the classroom, without risking the imposition of sanctions as a result of their ideological expressions.
State Board of Community Colleges v. Olson, 687 P.2d 429, 437 (Colo. 1984)(en banc). See also Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234, 250 (1957) (plurality opinion) ("academic freedom and political expression [are] areas in which government should be extremely reticent to tread.")
We are not surprised that Professor Churchill's remarks have led to calls for his dismissal. Free speech is always under pressure when the country is at war. But, in 1919, just months after the end of World War I, Oliver Wendell Holmes urged his country to reject censorship in favor of a "free trade in ideas" where "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market." He urged tolerance even for abhorrent ideas:
I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country. Abrams v. U.S., 250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919) (Holmes, J., dissenting).
Efforts to censor Churchill undermine the "free trade" in ideas and implicitly encourage threats and intimidation that will stifle open discussion.
We are particularly concerned that this controversy will create "a pall of orthodoxy" over higher education, Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589, 603 (1967). It is the role of colleges and universities to serve as models for the kind of informed, civil and respectful debate that is essential in a democracy. Such a debate is impossible if a professor fears possible dismissal every time he or she expresses a controversial opinion.
We urge you to preserve the University of Colorado as a marketplace of ideas by dropping your investigation of Professor Churchill.
Joan E. Bertin
National Coalition Against Censorship
275 7th Avenue
New York, NY 10001
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
139 Fulton St #302
New York, NY 10038
The above letter was sent to:
Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano
Boulder, CO 80309
and Members of the Board of Regents:
cc: Governor Bill Owens
136 State Capitol
Denver, CO 80203-1792
e-mail: [email protected]