Separation of Churchill and State

The free-speech chickens come home to roost at CU.

 On the first day of school I awoke with a sick feeling in my stomach. It did not hurt, it just made me feel weak. The sun did not sing as it came over the hill. -- Bless Me, Ultima

By now, University of Colorado president Betsy Hoffman must long for the days when all she had to worry about was a sex-recruiting scandal in the athletic department, and a football coach with a big mouth, and a dead student with a not-big-enough tolerance for alcohol. As she heads off to her increasingly smudged ivy tower, she must fondly recall her days as a medieval scholar, when her toughest task was parsing the meaning of "cunt" in The Canterbury Tales.

Because now controversy has CU by the short hairs and isn't letting go. Or, as Chaucer might say (and did), "He made a grab and caught her by the queint."

This is officially Higher Education Awareness Week, but the whole world is already all too aware of Colorado's flagship educational institution. No matter how many postcards student leaders send to state lawmakers with the message that higher education can't take any more budget cuts -- one of several pathetic "positive" efforts that CU is pushing -- legislators are very clear about one thing they'd like to see on the chopping block.

So what if shutting up Ward Churchill would also shut down free speech?

"We have to get the hell out'a here...this hick town is killing me." -- Bless Me, Ultima

While the Western Slope town of Norwood found Rudolfo Anaya's 1972 Bless Me, Ultima too racy, too obscene to allow in its schools -- it was "garbage," said Bob Conder, the superintendent of the Norwood School District, who didn't finish reading the book before banning it last week -- Boulder considered the novel mild enough to choose it for "One Book, One Boulder," the first community-wide reading event announced last month.

But then, three fictional murders, a whorehouse and a dozen or so swear words are nothing for a town with an unsolved child-beauty-queen murder that still makes headlines, a former CU employee busted for using a university cell phone to call an escort service, and these immortal words from Gary Barnett about the football team's female kicker: "Katie was not only a girl, she was terrible. There's no other way to say it."

I wanted to ask her immediately about the magic in the letters, but that would be rude and so I was quiet. I was fascinated by the black letters that formed on the paper and made my name. -- Bless Me, Ultima

CU's chickens have come home to roost. Over ten years ago, the National American Indian Movement, led by Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt, complained about "wannabe" Indians like ethnic-studies professor Ward Churchill -- who at the time was claiming he was one-sixteenth Cherokee and today is taking the fifth on that score. The Bellecourts even demanded that CU officials review Churchill's credentials, to determine whether he'd received tenure through deception by "billing himself as an American Indian writer, scholar and artist."

But CU didn't do the requested review then, and so last Thursday -- over a decade late and many, many dollars short -- the CU regents ordered Interim Chancellor Phil DiStefano to conduct essentially the same investigation and report back to Hoffman by mid-March. The regents also apologized to the entire nation for Churchill's statements, yet failed to recognize that they had much more to apologize for.

"I appreciate the fact that the CU regents have taken the necessary first step in the formal evaluation of Ward Churchill's employment status," said Governor Bill Owens, who quickly showed his appreciation by using the Churchill controversy to boost his national profile on shows like The O'Reilly Factor. "However, I deplore the behavior displayed by some students at the regents' meeting. Their abhorrent behavior underscores the culture of violence that can be spawned by inflammatory speeches and essays such as those by Mr. Churchill."

That sort of behavior and speech should be saved for the football field, where it belongs.

It clearly doesn't belong at the Universal Memorial Center, where CU had canceled, then rescheduled a speech that Churchill was set to make Tuesday night, a speech in which he discussed his 9/11 essay, "Some People Push Back; On the Justice of Roosting Chickens." That essay had escaped the notice of CU's thought police for more than three years, even though excerpts were published in the spring/summer 2002 issue of Green Anarchy, an environmentalist publication that also contained "Hit Where It Hurts," an essay by Ted Kaczynski. Churchill's screed made the Unabomber's ramblings look mild; about the only thing he didn't suggest was that he'd killed JonBenét. Even so, it wasn't until an enterprising Hamilton College student publicized "Roosting Chickens" that CU caught on -- and the controversy caught fire.

Even as Churchill's supporters threatened to sue the school so that the show could go on -- and on -- CU was preparing for its next "positive" push: an appearance Wednesday by freshmen launching a campaign to educate students about the dangers of excessive behavior fueled by alcohol, drugs and violence, freshmen who say they will no longer tolerate their school's degree value being tarnished by a "party-school reputation."

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