Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Firing of Ward Churchill: Why There is No Such Thing as Free Speech in Our Society

It has come to light recently that controversial U. of Colorado Ethnic Studies Professor Ward Churchill was fired by the University’s Board of Regents. Officially, he was fired for plagiarism and questionable background claims. In reality, he was fired for his essay after 9/11, comparing the victims of the terrorist attacks to Nazis (or “little Eichmanns”). For those that support this firing, it should be considered that Churchill is or was an employee at a state institution, with a tenure job that is supposed to protect one’s position (for the purposes of conducting research and expressing opinions without fear of government persecution), and was primarily fired for his unpopular political speech (with the plagiarism charges [which are questionable] and background claims used as the legal rationale to justify the Board’s decision).

The Intolerance of Tolerance

What I find hypocritical in this incident is that many of the same people calling for Churchill’s firing are the same ones (like David Horowitz) who claim that universities do not do enough to protect free speech on campus for students with unpopular (i.e., conservative) points of view. Horowitz has gone so far as to advocate the use of state power to enforce a university version of the Fairness Doctrine in the classroom (even forcing states to send bureaucrats to potentially keep tallies on whether a professor is expressing a “diverse” perspective in the classroom).

These are the same people, mandarins like Daniel Pipes, who complain mightily about political correctness on college campuses, while exhorting students to rat on professors who hold views critical of American foreign policy (Campus Watch). Like with taxes, speech is one of those commodities (and it is a commodity, not a right in this country) which only retains value for the person that agrees with the speech. It is a harsh reality for anyone to face that lives the illusion of the ideal that is the First Amendment, but try being an editorial Marxist working for The Wall Street Journal.

Campus Intolerance: Left and Right

This is not to say that political correctness is some myth dreamt up by self-victimizing conservatives, vying for employment at the American Enterprise Institute. I have spent most of my adult life in a university setting, and in spite of my own leftish worldview I have seen many professors express intolerant views of conservatives, and I have no doubt that some of these people are petty enough to subjectively grade their students on an ideological scale (although they would swear up and down that they do not). I have seen firsthand at least one professor in my collegiate career who went after a friend and colleague of mine in grad school because he committed the crime of applying for a job at an intelligence agency. And one need only look at past cases, like the “water buffalo” incident at Penn in the early 1990s, as well as the implementation of speech codes on most colleges and universities in the last twenty years, to see that intolerance of speech knows no boundaries. It is a spectacle of both the Left and Right in this country.

The larger issue is what this speaks to in American society when one of the most open institutions in the US (which is supposed to be insulated from commodification, since they are for the most part state institutions) is reduced to recriminatory political speech battles. It demonstrates that if a state employee in a job created with the intent of protecting speech is not protected for making unpopular political speech, then there is absolutely nowhere in this country (outside of the confines of our minds) where making public statements that are unpopular or even wrong are protected. Private power is well within its rights to regulate speech (banning employees from mentioning their salaries, imposing speech codes during work hours, etc.). The same now applies to public institutions. Even if Ward Churchill’s promised lawsuit succeeds, it will not protect him or anyone from future university boards from acting in the same way (in fact, these boards are composed of university admin and scholars, so they should be as sensitive to this issue as anyone).

Epistemology of Free Speech

Why is free speech so problematic? Deep down, people in this society do not like to express their political opinions in public settings (remember the old saying that you should never discuss a person’s politics or religion?), and when they hear others do it, particularly if those views are unpopular, the first instinct is to silence that individual. This is why the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was never incorporated until the 1920s. Until 1925 (in Gitlow v. New York), state and local governments regularly issued injunctions against people considered “dangerous” from holding public rallies or delivering speeches at public gatherings. In fact, it was so common, cities and states went so far as to ban certain books deemed offensive and were confiscated from local Post Offices (that is, on those occasions when the feds were not already doing the same thing through the Comstock Laws). Moreover, none of the framers questioned this power. The only Constitutional requirement local governments had to meet was to give citizens a “republican” (non-monarchical) form of government.

The First Amendment in its first 134 years of existence only protected your speech from the federal government, which is why the first words of the Amendment state, “Congress shall make no law….” And even in those days, the feds were not beneath imprisoning or punishing newspaper editors that insulted the President (Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798), obscenity (Comstock Laws), and libel and slander. This is not to exculpate the firing of Churchill. I am someone that still interprets the First Amendment literally, to the point that I oppose even the use of libel laws in our courts, but Churchill is not the first professor to be fired from his academic position for his political opinions. In the early 1970s, Michael Parenti (a popular political science professor) was fired from his position by the University of Vermont because of his Communist sympathies (the excuse used in that case was Parenti’s previous and contested arrest at a demonstration against the Kent State killings).

This case is an exemplar that even in free societies the desire to regulate speech is always the principal intervening factor in any allowance for the free expression of political speech. The substantive difference between the US and a country like China is the degree to which speech is regulated. The same applies to Europe, especially on speech considered racist or amounting to some form of genocide denial (in France, for example, denying both the Holocaust of Jews in World War Two and the Armenians in World War One is a crime). These regulations on speech are much closer representations of the state and the people to keep the politically unpopular (no matter how wrong) isolated and private (on the threat of losing his/her job or physical freedom). Sadly, it is but one more illustration of why free speech does not exist, which is to say it is at best (in the most open environment) speech with restrictions and conditions.

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