DENVER – Former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill has made another stab at reinstatement by asking a District Court judge in Denver to reconsider his recent decision to vacate an earlier jury’s finding and to deny Churchill’s request to get his job back.
The court’s failure to reinstate the former ethnic studies teacher “has caused incalculable damage to freedom of speech and academic freedom in this country,” David Lane, Churchill’s attorney, said in the request.
After a closely-watched trial that drew national and international attention, a jury found in March that CU fired Churchill “in retaliation for his First Amendment protected speech,” Lane said in a motion filed July 21 that seeks to amend an earlier ruling by Judge Larry Naves. The jury’s verdict did not guarantee reinstatement, a decision left up to the judge.
An affidavit by a disillusioned juror from Churchill’s initial civil rights case was filed with the current motion, contending that when the judge’s vacated the jury’s decision it “was disrespectful because (he) did not follow what the jury found.”
Churchill was fired by CU in 2007 for “conduct below the minimum standards of professional integrity” after furor arose over a 9/11 essay he wrote in which he said World Trade Center financial operations fueled U.S. foreign policy-related violence. CU later fired him for research misconduct in an action the university maintained was not the result of the controversial essay.
The essay contained the now-notorious comparison of some financial sector employees – termed “Little Eichmanns” – to the Nazi technocrat of the same surname, raising the ire of talk show hosts and various detractors and the support of free speech proponents and other activists.
Churchill sued to get his job back in March, when a jury found he would not have been fired had he not written the 9/11 essay and awarded him a nominal $1 in damages. Both he and CU argued that reinstatement would damage CU’s reputation and would have a chilling effect on academic freedom.
CU said the $1 award vindicated their position and Naves said it showed the jury believed Churchill had suffered no actual damages, a statement challenged by Churchill’s attorney and supported by the juror’s affidavit.
The juror’s affidavit said only one member of the panel did not want to award “significant money” and “we listened to Churchill’s testimony and hoped that the judge would give him his job back or give him some compensation.”
CU’s witnesses were “biased and dishonest,” the juror’s current statement said of their testimony in the trial called by Churchill to contest his firing.
Naves vacated the jury’s decision because he said CU’s Board of Regents was acting in a quasi-judicial capacity that provides immunity from lawsuits, a position Lane disputes. The judge also said Churchill had expressed animosity toward CU in remarks to the media.
In failing to grant reinstatement, the preferred remedy in most similar civil rights cases, the court made “unprecedented new law by ruling that reinstatement is not appropriate when only nominal damages are awarded,” Lane said in the July 21 motion.
The judge also ignored the jury’s finding that there was “no evidence of academic misconduct sufficient to justify Churchill’s termination, yet this court finds there was sufficient academic misconduct to deny reinstatement of employment,” Lane said.
The court has “gone out of its way to disregard the jury’s verdict,” he said, and asserted the court is “also incorrect in its finding that the jury implicitly found that Churchill suffered no actual damages.”
Against carefully crafted procedural issues raised by CU’s attorney, Patrick O’Rourke, Churchill’s attorney raised the specter of repression, asserting that the court’s position has meant “this country is less free.”
If his current bid for reinstatement is unsuccessful, Churchill is expected to attempt to overturn the judge’s initial ruling in the Colorado Court of Appeals.