Ward Churchill, who was fired from his job as CU professor in 2007, sued CU for wrongful termination on First Amendment grounds. The jury found in his favor today, saying that Churchill’s speech (his infamous 9/11 essay) was one of the reasons CU fired him, and according to the law speech can play no part in the decision to fire a state employee.
This verdict stretches credulity. One could argue that the investigation of Churchill’s works began as a result of the uproar over his 9/11 essay. The timing of it certainly doesn’t look coincidental. The thing is, an investigation does not mean that Churchill’s termination was inevitable. The process took 2 years. Had Churchill shown real scholarship in his work the investigative committees would have had no reason to recommend his ouster, and the regents would have had little justification to do so. Yet the jury was convinced that while his essay was not the only reason he was fired, it was one of them, hence their verdict.
I followed the coverage of the trial a little bit, listening to Caplis & Silverman occasionally. Silverman noted during the trial that all of the jurors were under the age of 30. That concerned me, and my worst fears were vindicated. I listened to Caplis & Silverman today, and supposedly (it could not be confirmed at the time) one of the jurors called in. Dan Caplis had been gloating during the show today that while the jury voted in favor of Churchill, they only awarded him $1 in damages. He took this to mean that while CU lost, they had seen through Churchill’s charade and saw him for what he was: an academic fraud. The supposed juror who called in said this had nothing to do with the decision on damages. She said the jurors couldn’t make up their minds what to award him. Most of the jurors wanted to give him some amount, but one did not, and was apparently adamant about it. She said they spent several hours just on this subject. It sounded like they ultimately broke down and decided to award Churchill nothing just to get the matter overwith. The supposed juror said she couldn’t see why the legal system was asking them to make this decision anyway. They asked the judge if $0 was okay. The judge instructed that $1 was the minimum if they decided in favor of Churchill, and so that’s what they awarded. It was a cop out.
The supposed juror sounded confused and in over her head. When Caplis and Silverman asked her questions it was difficult for her to give a coherent answer. She said that the jury felt that their only job was to determine if Churchill had been fired because of his essay, and they didn’t consider other factors. It sounded like they found the credibility of CU’s witnesses suspect. She said she believed Churchill when he gave his testimony, and while she didn’t agree with all of his controversial 9/11 essay, she thought “he made some good points.” Unbelievable. She said the jurors reviewed the investigative committee report on Churchill’s plagiarism and academically unethical practices. She said she agreed with a couple things in the report, but she thought they nit-picked the rest, and she didn’t think that the violations cited in the report that she agreed with warranted his firing.
Apparently some of the fault for this falls on CU. I feel like they dropped the ball, like their attention has been diverted to other matters, and they didn’t consider this trial a priority. It looks like they didn’t do their due diligence in selecting a competent jury. I didn’t get a sense that the supposed juror who called in was competent to deal with the subject matter of the trial. She was only receptive to simple arguments, and lacked critical thinking skills.
This clip kind of reflects what a joke I think this trial was:
Anyway, a separate hearing will be held to determine whether Churchill will be reinstated at CU, or the judge may just decide not to reinstate, but rather give him a lump sum. If Churchill is reinstated it’s going to be egg on CU’s face. In that case, how could CU be taken seriously again?
Not that anyone from CU administration is listening, but my one word of advice to them is the next time they receive complaints about the academic performance of their faculty, they should act to investigate it promptly rather than sit on it, which has been their modus operandi until this blew up in their face four years ago. Evidence of problems with Churchill’s scholarship had been mounting for years. The record that Caplis & Silverman were able to uncover through public document requests showed that Phil DiStephano yucked it up every time a complaint about Churchill came to his attention. He was apparently happy that Churchill was drawing the spotlight, perhaps bringing attention to CU in a sick sort of way. DiStephano had been helping Churchill advance his career at CU, until the controversy erupted. I shouldn’t single him out. The CU Administration has shown itself to be kind of like the Keystone Kops (again, no offense to the town of Keystone), stumbling into this investigation when they felt overwhelming public pressure. Maybe this will teach them a lesson? Are they learning the right lesson? Maybe not. A sad state of affairs indeed.