April 5, 2009
DENVER — A jury ruled Thursday that the University of Colorado wrongly fired the professor who compared some Sept. 11 victims to a Nazi, a verdict that gives the professor $1 and a chance to get his job back. “What was asked for and what was delivered was justice,” Ward Churchill said outside the courtroom.
Then-Gov. Bill Owens was among the officials who had called on the university to fire Churchill after his essay touched off a national firestorm, but the tenured professor of ethnic studies was ultimately terminated on charges of research misconduct.
Churchill said claims including plagiarism were just a cover and that he never would have been fired if it weren’t for the essay in which he called World Trade Center victims “little Eichmanns,” a reference to Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi leader who helped orchestrate the Holocaust. Jurors agreed.
When the verdict was read, Churchill hugged his attorney, David Lane, and his wife, Natsu Saito.
“I can’t tell you how significant this is,” Lane said. “There are few defining moments that give the First Amendment this kind of light.”
A judge will decide whether Churchill gets his job back. Lane said a reinstatement motion would be filed within 30 days and a hearing would likely be scheduled in June.
“What’s next for me? Reinstatement, of course,” Churchill said. “That’s what I asked for. I didn’t ask for money.”
University spokesman Ken McConnellogue said the university will review its options before deciding whether to appeal.
“(The verdict) doesn’t change the fact that more than 20 of his faculty peers found that he engaged in plagiarism and other academic misconduct,” McConnellogue said.
He said the jury’s $1 damage award sends a message about the merits of Churchill’s civil claims.
Lane said the university will also be liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in Churchill’s legal bills.
Churchill’s essay was written in 2001 but attracted little attention until 2005, when critics publicized it after Churchill was invited to speak at Hamilton College in upstate New York.
Churchill testified last week that he didn’t mean his comments to be hurtful to Sept. 11 victims. He said he was arguing that “if you make it a practice of killing other people’s babies for personal gain … eventually they’re going to give you a taste of the same thing.”
Betsy Hoffman, who was president of the university at the time, had testified that Owens pressured her to fire Churchill and said he would “unleash my plan” when she told him she couldn’t.
In his testimony, Owens denied threatening the university.
University officials concluded that Churchill couldn’t be fired over the essay because of his First Amendment rights, but they launched an investigation of his academic research.
That investigation, which didn’t include the Sept. 11 essay, concluded he had plagiarized, fabricated evidence and committed other misconduct. He was fired on those allegations in 2007.
The university has maintained that the firing was justified.