The Colorado Supreme Court recently upheld the firing of a university professor, Ward Churchill, who wrote a stomach churning essay comparing the 9/11 terror victims to Adolf Eichman. Fittingly, the court’s ruling came down on September 10 of this year, one day before the eleventh anniversary of the attack. Ward Churchill, who had been a tenured professor of ethnic studies at University of Colorado Boulder, had claimed in his lawsuit that his firing violated his right to free speech and that it was retaliation for his infamous essay.
The Supreme Court’s opinion upholds the appellate court’s ruling which found that the university regents’ decision to fire Churchill was quasi-judicial and therefore, immune from lawsuit. Churchill’s claims for reinstatement of his job and future pay were denied.
The essay first came to the attention of university officials four years after it was first written. The essay, entitled “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens”, described the World Trade Center victims as “little Eichmanns” who had formed part of a “technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire” that helped to precipitate the attacks. The university instituted an investigation in which it was revealed that Churchill had plagiarized materials, fabricated some of his research findings and misrepresented his credentials in matters unrelated to his 2001 essay. He was subsequently fired.
Churchill then filed suit, alleging that the university retaliated for his exercise of free speech. A jury concluded that Churchill’s essay was the motivating factor for his firing. However, they only awarded him $1 in damages. Notwithstanding the jury verdict, the judge issued a directed verdict in the university’s favor, ruling that it was immune from suit because of its quasi-judicial function in the matter. On appeal, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s directed verdict.
The Colorado Supreme Court concluded that the firing of 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.”
Churchill plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.