2.08.2005

Further thoughts on the Churchill controversy

As an academic, I've been closely following the Ward Churchill saga for professional, as well as political, reasons. In my own classes, I'm very open about my own political and social views, while at the same time making every effort to foster a respectful climate for all students. So far, I've never had any complaints. But, I am acutely aware of the well-orchestrated right-wing campaign to silence radical voices on campus, in which the Churchill incident is but one skirmish.

The Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) has issued a Statement Supporting Professor Ward Churchill and Academic Freedom. The statement pretty well sums up my thoughts on the matter, as concerns both the substance of Churchill's analysis of the September 11th attacks and the implications of this controversy for the principle of academic freedom:
The central point expressed by Professor Churchill has been inaccurately portrayed in much of the mainstream media covering this controversy. Professor Churchill indicts the role of our military, intelligence, and financial infrastructure in making U.S. foreign policy possible, and suggests that these “technocrats of empire” are complicit in the harms that our foreign policy has perpetrated around the world. While most people are offended by the particular analogy Professor Churchill used to convey this point, the substance of his critique warrants greater attention.

Most important, distaste or offense at Professor Churchill’s expression of his views does not give anyone the right to challenge his right to say them. Some critics of Professor Churchill have expressed the view that free speech might nevertheless have “consequences,” such as firing. But the central meaning behind the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech is that the government cannot fire or discipline individuals for speech it finds unappealing or unpopular. Indeed, the most controversial views are the ones that most need to be protected, for they are the easiest to chill. The whole point of a system of free speech is that those who find speech offensive have an equal right to challenge and respond to it – with more speech.