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Churchill v. Univ. of Colo. at Boulder

From January 2005 to April 2013
University of Colorado at Boulder (Public college or university)
Boulder, CO, United States

Identity of Speakers

  • Ward Churchill
    Faculty/Staff
    Other

    Churchill was a tenured professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who wrote a controversial essay likening the civilians killed in the World Trade Center to Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi officer and convicted war criminal.

Additional Information

  • Incident Nature:
    Other course-related event
  • Incident Responses:
    University administration not protective of speech
    Litigation
  • Incident Status:
    In litigation State Court
    Dismissed
  • No protest Occured
  • Did not involve Speech Codes

Summary

Ward Churchill was a tenured professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder in early 2005 when an essay that he wrote in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks was discovered and disseminated to the general public. Among other controversial statements, Churchill’s essay likened the civilians killed in those attacks to Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi officer who had a primary role in planning the Holocaust. The controversy quickly engulfed the entire nation and the university responded to the public outcry by convening a special Regents meeting. Ultimately, the Regents unanimously voted to create an ad hoc panel to investigate Churchill. After this meeting, several Regents publicly implied that they hoped Churchill would be dismissed as a result of the essay. Soon after, the ad hoc panel reported to the university that the content of Churchill’s essay was protected free speech and could not constitute grounds for dismissal. However, the ad hoc panel had also received multiple complaints about Churchill regarding alleged academic misconduct in his published works—albeit unrelated to the 9/11 essay. In response to these complaints, the school announced a further investigation into Churchill for nine alleged instances of academic misconduct. Upon further investigation, the university concluded that Churchill had engaged in serious academic misconduct and the Regents voted to terminate Churchill’s employment. In response, Churchill filed suit in the Denver District Court alleging, among other things, that the investigation—and subsequent termination—were actions taken by the university in retaliation for his 9/11 essay, in violation of the First Amendment. At trial, the jury found that Churchill’s essay was a substantial factor in the university’s decision to discharge him and awarded him nominal damages. After this verdict, however, the university filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that the school was immune from suit because the Regents’ decision to terminate Churchill constituted a quasi-judicial act entitled to absolute immunity. The trial court accepted this argument, ruling that the Regents were immune to Churchill’s claims. Eventually, Churchill appealed the adverse lower court rulings to the Colorado Supreme Court. But that court–sitting en banc–agreed with the lower courts, holding that the Regents’ decision to terminate Churchill was a quasi-judicial action entitled to absolute immunity. Due to that immunity, Churchill’s First Amendment claims were rejected without regard to the seemingly clear connection between the 9/11 essay and his termination. The Supreme Court of the United States rejected Churchill’s petition for certiorari on April 1, 2013, ending the lawsuit.