The Colorado Supreme Court has upheld the firing of a university professor who wrote an essay comparing the victims of the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001, to Nazi Adolf Eichmann.
The court on September 10 — just one day before the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington — sided with the regents of the University of Colorado against free-speech and retaliation claims brought by former tenured professor of ethnic studies Ward Churchill.
In affirming an intermediate Colorado appeals court’s ruling, the state’s highest court found that the regents’ decision to fire Churchill was “quasi-judicial” and therefore immune from lawsuit. The court rejected Churchill’s claims for reinstatement of his job and future pay.
The University of Colorado Boulder launched an investigation into Churchill’s academic activities after the essay that he wrote in 2001 came to officials’ attention in 2005. The essay, “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” described individuals working in the World Trade Center as “little Eichmanns” — a reference to the Nazi leader who helped organize the Holocaust. Churchill wrote that the September 11 victims had formed part of a “technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire” that helped to induce the attacks.
Following an internal investigation, the university concluded in 2006 that Churchill had plagiarized materials, fabricated some of his research findings and misrepresented his credentials in matters apparently unrelated to the 2001 essay. He was fired in July 2007.
Churchill filed suit that November, alleging retaliation for exercising his free speech rights and seeking reinstatement to his job. In 2009, a jury found that Churchill’s essay was the motivating factor in his firing, but awarded him only $1 in damages. Despite the jury finding, the judge issued a directed verdict in the school’s favor, ruling that it was immune from the suit. The intermediate appeals court later affirmed.
The Colorado Supreme Court concluded that the school’s decision to fire Churchill “possessed the characteristics” of an adversary proceeding and was “functionally comparable” to a judicial proceeding.
“Hence, the Supreme Court holds that the regents’ termination proceeding was a quasi-judicial proceeding, and the regents are entitled to absolute immunity,” the court held.
Churchill’s attorney, David Lane of Killmer, Lane & Newman in Denver, said his client would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It is very disturbing in an allegedly free society that the Colorado Supreme Court has decided that, yes indeed, the regents have violated the First Amendment, but they are above the law,” Lane said.
Ken McConnellogue, University of Colorado vice president for communications, said the decision was appropriate, given Churchill’s “repeated research misconduct.”
“The ruling is a victory for our faculty and our students,” he said.
Contact Leigh Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.