A recent development at the University of Colorado has put stress on the fundamental tenet of academic freedom. Responding to a radio show by right-wing provocateur Bill O’Reilly, the Republican governor of Colorado, Bill Owens, challenged the University of Colorado’s regents to fire tenured Prof. Ward Churchill for his comments justifying terrorism against the United States. Thus far, the regents have not given in to Owens’s demands, and nor should they. The principle of academic freedom should inhibit Colorado’s government and other state governments from controlling research and free speech on university campuses.
Churchill’s background is itself a subject of controversy. There are allegations that Churchill misrepresented his qualifications — including false claims about his education and Native American heritage — in order to receive tenure. The Colorado regents should investigate these allegations; despite his tenure, Churchill can and should be fired if he lied about his expertise and ethnicity in an effort to gain tenure. However, he should not be fired for the content of his controversial research.
The tenure system ensures the proper functioning of academia. Universities offer professors protection from termination based on research content in exchange so professors will research controversial topics. College campuses are designed to be the epicenter of thought in America, and at times controversial subject matters must be researched by tenured professors. Universities should and do have the freedom to pursue professors who wish to research controversial topics without giving in to government censorship pressures.
Churchill is not the first professor to come under heavy criticism for professing controversial anti-American views in a time of war. However, as long as a professor’s speech falls within the protections of the First Amendment — that is, the speech does not incite violence or damaging actions — it must not be censored. In the 1970s, the Franklin affair erupted at Stanford University when a controversial tenured English professor — an admitted Maoist — was fired for inciting student riots against the Vietnam War. Stanford was able to produce conclusive evidence to prove Franklin used his position as a professor to incite campus violence. It is logical to argue that this speech — which directly encourages people to act in a violent manner — should not be protected.
Churchill’s lectures, however, have not gone so far as to actually call for violence against this country. While he may justify terrorism, suggest that the Pentagon is a valid target for attack and openly admit a strong dislike for this country, he has not directly suggested that his students plan and undertake a terrorist attack. While he may be written off as a fraudulent quack and an extremist, he should not be removed from his position simply because his views are controversial.