Skip to comments.Anatomy of a Free-Speech Firestorm: How a Professor's 3-Year-Old Essay Sparked a Controversy
Posted on 02/10/2005 3:41:03 AM PST by billorites
Hours after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Ward Churchill compared the victims to the Nazis. A professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he wrote in an essay that those killed at the World Trade Center were not innocent civilians but "little Eichmanns."
The analogy is so outrageous, one thinks, that surely he immediately got into trouble. Surely it prompted angry letters and calls for him to be fired. But it didn't.
Instead, for years the comparison just sat there quietly. Mr. Churchill, by contrast, rarely stays still. He has spoken on more than 40 college campuses since the 2001 attacks.
He traveled to elite liberal-arts colleges like Williams and Swarthmore, to big public universities like Arizona State and Michigan State, and to prestigious private universities like Brown and Syracuse. He spoke at community colleges in New York and Utah. Generally, he spoke about genocide and American Indian issues, but some speeches focused on foreign policy. Yet other than a brief mention in The Burlington Free-Press during a December 2001 visit to the University of Vermont, the essay never made the news.
Then this winter, as he was about to speak at Hamilton College, the "little Eichmanns" time bomb went off, sparking hundreds of stories, denunciations of Mr. Churchill by governors and legislators, canceled speeches, and an investigation by Colorado administrators into his work that may threaten his tenured job.
So why now?
The answer lies in the power of Bill O'Reilly, Weblogs, and the families of September 11 victims. But before all that, the seeds of this controversy were sown not with Nazi references in an online essay but with a 1981 armored-car robbery that Mr. Churchill had nothing to do with.
Once Bitten, Twice Shy
On October 20, 1981, robbers connected with the Black Liberation Army and the Weather Underground struck a Brinks armored car while it sat outside a bank near Nyack, N.Y. One guard was killed, another wounded. Two police officers were later killed at a roadblock when robbers jumped from the back of a U-Haul truck, firing automatic rifles.
Susan Rosenberg, a 1970s leftist radical, was indicted as an accessory to the robbery, but remained free until she was arrested in New Jersey in 1984 on charges of possessing 740 pounds of explosives. She was sentenced to 58 years in prison, but the charges in the Brinks case were dropped.
Then in 2001, just before leaving office, President Bill Clinton granted her clemency, and she was released from prison. Now a prisoner-rights activist and writer, Ms. Rosenberg was hired in the fall by the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society, and Culture to teach a one-month course on writing memoirs at Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y.
That appointment created a public-relations mess for Hamilton, drawing protests from professors and negative editorials in newspapers. Ms. Rosenberg then backed out, citing "the atmosphere of such organized right-wing intimidation from a small group of students and faculty."
The Rosenberg debacle raised the antennae of Theodore Eismeier, a government professor at Hamilton. So when the Kirkland Project sent a message on December 14 highlighting its spring schedule, which included a February 3 speech by Mr. Churchill on prison issues, he checked out the Colorado professor.
After a little Internet searching, Mr. Eismeier discovered "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens," the essay in which Mr. Churchill made his now-infamous "little Eichmanns" comment. Mr. Eismeier says he immediately sent the essay and "other troubling writings" to college administrators, urging them to cancel the event.
The storm clouds were gathering.
Three days later, on Friday, December 17, Joan Hinde Stewart, the college's president, met with Nancy S. Rabinowitz, director of the Kirkland Project, to discuss Mr. Churchill. The following Monday, the president and David C. Paris, vice president for academic affairs, met with Ms. Rabinowitz and members of the project's executive committee.
"They were saying this is going to be as bad as Susan Rosenberg," Ms. Rabinowitz says. "And I said, Let's take a strong stand for freedom of speech." According to Ms. Rabinowitz, the president told her to fold Mr. Churchill's speech into a planned panel discussion and change the focus to his offensive positions.
Then in January, Mr. Eismeier and three other Hamilton professors wrote two opinion pieces about Ms. Rosenberg and Mr. Churchill. He sent them to the campus newspaper, The Hamilton Spectator, along with a copy of "Some People Push Back."
In the essay, Mr. Churchill argues that those killed at the World Trade Center were not truly innocent. "Let's get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break." He adds: "If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it."
On January 21, the campus newspaper reported that Mr. Churchill was coming to the campus and highlighted some of his more controversial statements. Mr. Eismeier was quoted as saying that the event would not create a useful discussion. "It seems akin to inviting a representative of the KKK to speak and then asking a member of the NAACP to respond," he said.
Five days later, the news was picked up by The Post-Standard, a newspaper in nearby Syracuse, N.Y. The pressure on Hamilton would only grow over the next seven days. Administrators had been wrong: It wasn't going to be as bad as Susan Rosenberg. It was going to be a lot worse.
Faster Than a Speeding Blog
In the Internet age, that report in the Syracuse newspaper quickly reached far beyond upstate New York. A link to the article was posted on Little Green Footballs, a widely read conservative Weblog, at 9:40 a.m., Eastern time.
Eleven minutes later a reader posted a comment, saying Mr. Churchill deserved to be shot in the face. And then just before 10 a.m., a different reader provided the professor's e-mail address. Before 11 a.m., another reader announced that she had just called the Colorado governor and had written letters to The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. She followed up a few minutes later with contact information for the newspapers so that others could do the same.
Linking to a simple article from Syracuse had unleashed the power of hundreds of individuals, all using Google to add little bits of information. Within hours, 500 comments about the matter had been posted on Little Green Footballs alone. Readers linked to old news releases about squabbles between Mr. Churchill and the American Indian Movement. They linked to Hamilton news releases about alumni who were killed in the attacks. Someone requested the name of a September 11 widow from Colorado who might have political clout.
The blogs reached beyond the water cooler. Many readers wanted to do something -- even if it was just sending a message of protest or making a phone call. Over the next week or so, Hamilton would receive 8,000 e-mail messages about Mr. Churchill.
Two days later, on January 28, as the story continued to gather momentum, readers of Freerepublic.com, another conservative Weblog, continued to talk about Mr. Churchill. One poster suggested calling Hamilton to tell officials that he would not contribute any money if they allowed Mr. Churchill to speak on the campus. Another poster replied: "Screw that! I say we cost them money. Their 1-800 admissions # should never stop ringing."
That night, the Churchill saga became a prime-time event when Bill O'Reilly led off his talk show on the Fox News Channel, The O'Reilly Factor, by calling Mr. Churchill "insane" and saying that Hamilton had no justification for giving him a public forum.
Mr. O'Reilly interviewed Matthew Coppo, a Hamilton sophomore whose father was killed in the World Trade Center attacks. Mr. Coppo's personal story, some now say, helped the Hamilton event get the publicity that the dozens of other speeches by Mr. Churchill never got.
The closest thing Mr. O'Reilly could find to a defender of Mr. Churchill was Philip A. Klinkner, an associate professor of government at Hamilton. Only one problem: Mr. Klinkner was one of the professors who had told the Kirkland Project that Mr. Churchill should not speak.
"Going on O'Reilly is a kamikaze mission," Mr. Klinkner acknowledges. "I went on to defend a principle. Colleges, if they choose to be a marketplace of ideas, have to be willing to bring in people who say pretty repugnant things." Nevertheless, he adds, "If I want to have someone come to class to talk about problems with the Treaty of Versailles, I don't have to bring in a Nazi."
Mr. O'Reilly ended the segment about Mr. Churchill with advice for his viewers. "I don't want anybody doing anything crazy to Hamilton College," he said. "I don't want any threats going in there. I don't want any of that. Feel free to wire or e-mail the college with your complaints. And you alumni at Hamilton, do not give them a nickel if that man appears."
Vige Barrie, a spokeswoman for Hamilton, was in the president's office as the program was shown. "When the segment stopped," she says, "the phone just started ringing."
Anywhere but Here
In the end, Hamilton canceled the event after receiving "credible threats of violence" against Mr. Churchill and college officials, including one call from a man who said he was going to bring a gun to the speech. Ms. Barrie says the police are still investigating several of the threats.
But canceling the speech will not undo the weeks of negative publicity. At Hamilton, Ms. Barrie says, some students are going to work with college officials on improving the college's image. "We want to be known for more than just Ward Churchill," she says.
And other presidents and alumni offices must be asking, Could this have happened elsewhere? Maybe at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts, where Mr. Churchill was supposed to speak in March. Or at Eastern Washington University, where he was scheduled to appear in April. Both events have been canceled.
The situation at Hamilton was ripe to explode into a bigger story, says Mr. Klinkner, citing the Susan Rosenberg case, the college's upstate New York location, and the student whose father perished in the attacks. And Ms. Rabinowitz, the Hamilton professor of comparative literature who invited Mr. Churchill, says the college was simply in the sights of conservative talk shows and Weblogs after the Rosenberg affair.
The controversy certainly never came up at the dozens of other institutions where Mr. Churchill has appeared since he wrote his essay.
Randall Fuller, an assistant professor of English at Drury University, in Springfield, Mo., says faculty members have been following the flap because Mr. Churchill spoke there in March 2004 without any incident. In fact, Mr. Fuller says, Mr. Churchill sparked the "most stimulating and engaged discussion" of the 18 speakers invited to the campus to commemorate the Lewis and Clark expedition. "We knew that he was a provocateur, and that's what we liked about him," he says.
Sharon L. Dobkin, a psychology professor at Monroe Community College, in Rochester, N.Y., invited Mr. Churchill to speak about genocide in November 2002. The college's New York location did not prompt a stir back then. She says she had not heard of the "Some People Push Back" essay at the time, but she was not surprised by it. "I think he's deliberately inflammatory," she says. "Either you love Ward Churchill or you hate him."
Not the Floor-Sweepers
Mr. Churchill's speaking engagements may dry up now, as other colleges back away from his fiery rhetoric. But he has other things to worry about -- most immediately, his job. Regents in Colorado are pushing for his firing, and the interim chancellor of his campus has announced an investigation into his work to determine whether he "may have overstepped his bounds."
That investigation could be the first step toward dismissing him. Vandals have spray-painted swastikas on his pickup truck, and he has received more than 100 death threats. And now a Lamar University sociologist is charging that some of Mr. Churchill's research is fraudulent.
In a speech on Tuesday in Boulder, Mr. Churchill said that he would not retract his statements and that he would fight to keep his job. His essay was sparked, he said, by hearing someone call the attack "senseless." He added: "How can they positively know that? Do they really believe this operation had no purpose?"
He also told the crowd that he did not mean that everyone in the World Trade Center was a "little Eichmann." The janitors and passers-by were not the people at the heart of the "mighty engine of profit" that he derided.
Back at Hamilton, the issue has moved beyond simply Mr. Churchill's words. Mr. Klinkner says the controversy proves that academe cannot think of itself as separate from the rest of society. "You can forget about the notion of the ivory tower and that we can keep all these things in-house. Any piece of information that exists will get out. I don't think that's a bad thing," he says. "This was not good for Hamilton, but we need to acknowledge that we can no longer say, 'No, we're going to play by our own rules.'"
For Ms. Rabinowitz, director of the Kirkland Project, the question is whether the incident will make colleges reluctant to invite controversial speakers: "How many people can stomach what we've been through?"
No lack of fraudulence with liberal academia. Besides, recent studies show that fraudulent research is behind many recent studies.
I see that Free Republic is mentioned in the article.
lol .... yeah, heaven forbid someone should actually take a close look at what is being offered up on campuses across this nation.
This reminds me of Reid's outrage over the RNC's compiling and putting forth a report of his record ~ how dare anyone use reality as a tool to shape public opinion?
Ronald Everett the black panther criminal who invented Kwanza. Ward Churchill, Susan Rosenberg a convicted aremed robber, these are people who are hired by colleges to teach College courses and be professors? What is wrong with this picture?
It's not a new experience for universities, although it's much more national and international since the Internet -- my hippie sister and her friends gathered to listen to Abby Hoffman speak at the University of New York at Potsdam back in the 60s. When he advocated killing their parents and (after questioning by a student) repeated that he meant it literally, they rose up in a body and ran him off campus.
I can't wait to hear what the same people who whine about academic freedom to slander and libel the dead and the living will say on the day when Pat Buchanan comes to their campus to explain that 9/11 was really caused by lesbians and gays infuriating God.....
"That's what we liked about him".
Unimportant whether he's a fraud. Unimportant whether his "research" is invented. Unimportant that every word out of his mouth is a lie.
He was a provocateur.
That's what we liked about him.
The time for so called playing by their own rules is fast diminishing.
Or the Third Reich?
Wouldn't be surprised if they did want to discuss the positive aspects of the third reich.
For a comprehensive collection of links and information about Ward Churchill, please see PirateBallerina.com.
Like he can actually aim and shoot the weapon. I bet he's not proficient with a B-B Gun let alone a real weapon.
Self-justified by posing as a bitter Native American, "...Churchill's speaking engagements may dry up now, as other colleges back away from his fiery rhetoric. But he has other things to worry about -- most immediately, his job. Regents in Colorado are pushing for his firing, and the interim chancellor of his campus has announced an investigation into his work to determine whether he "may have overstepped his bounds."
Compare Churchill's (state and federal funded by taxpayers) salary, tenure benefits, social status, etc, to death benefits, medical and retirement programs, pay scale, etc, of any member of our military. Ward Churchill is NOT an intellectual treasure worthy of instructing American youth.
How explicitly proMarxist can phony Indian Churchill's hypocrisy prove himself to be when he cites "profit motive" which is the diabolique of Marx's anti-capitalism. The sweat and toil of America's "profit motive" supports the grandstand on which (bleep x ten) Churchill hawks his hystrionic subversive free HATE speech.
BTW, the way: One week after 9/11, a ten year old neighbor child told me that her (public school)TEACHER told her class that the 9/11 attack was "America's fault". I was so stunned that I just stared at the child and never said a word in response.
American taypayers fund many "educational" entities dedicated to deconstructing America's republic. Read Ben Shapiro's best seller, BRAINWASHED - an expose on subversive ill-liberal academia.
Furthermore, two high school students, during a casual conversation last year, informed me their English teacher told* them what the (misinterpreted)constitutional precept "separation of church and state" meant without EVER providing the class with the full context of the First Amendment.
It doesn't stop with Churchill:
Bill Ayers was a central figure in the Weather Underground. Ayers is currently a school reform activist and a professor of education at the University of Chicago at Illinois.
Kathleen Cleaver is best known as the former communications secretary of the Black Panther Party. She is a writer and senior lecturer at Emory University Law School.
Bernardine Dohrn was part of the leadership of the Weather Underground and considered the figurehead of the organisation. She spent the 1970s living underground and was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. Today, Dohrn runs a juvenile justice program at Northwestern University.
Brian Flanagan was a member of the Weather Underground. He is currently a bar-owner in New York City.
Todd Gitlin was president of Students for a Democratic Society in 1963. He has written extensively on the Weather Underground and the 1960s counterculture. He is a professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University.
Mark Rudd was famous for his role in the 1968 Columbia protests. As part of the Weather Underground's leadership, he lived underground for several years during the 1970s. He now teaches at a junior college in New Mexico.
To try and compare the Holocaust with the Israeli/PA conflict is disgusting. The man should be fired for sedition!
How much time will go by before the day arrives on which a conservative could effectively defend himself saying, "My writing doesn't incite Leftists to riot; I only use hyperbole as a literary device"?
Poor Nancy. So many of us have been thinking about the Brinks and 9/11 victims and their families and the students spending 160K for a degree that will be snickered at. We had forgotten that she is the one who has truly suffered the most.
Laura Ingram too hammered on this on radio.
Ward Churchill is like his biological weapon blanket given to the Indians as he spreads his mental virus across college campuses.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.