In February, controversial former CU professor Ward Churchill launched a new effort to win back his old job -- one that brought him to the Colorado Court of Appeals yesterday. How does Churchill's attorney, David Lane, think it went?
"It's really difficult to read tea leaves by questions asked by the judges," Lane says. "I can only hope they follow the law."
To recap: In April 2009, a jury found that Churchill had been fired from his job in part because of statements he'd made -- a reference to an essay in which he likened 9/11 victims to "little Eichmanns." But jurors only awarded Churchill $1 in damages -- and in July, Judge Larry Naves declined to order that Churchill be reinstated, for reasons Lane finds suspect.
"There's no doubt about it -- Judge Naves's decision was a politically motivated decision," he maintains. "And if it's left to stand, then academic freedom and tenure mean absolutely nothing in any public university."
In his address before the court of appeals, Lane says he argued that "the judge erred in vacating the jury's verdict and granting immunity to the regents -- and he also erred in dismissing our claim that the investigation launched by the regents to study every word ever written or spoken by Ward Churchill was a violation of the First Amendment separate and apart from the termination."
CU's regents "targeted him because they didn't like his 9/11 essay, which is what the jury concluded," Lane continues. "But the judge gave them immunity after the jury basically convicted them -- and that has huge First Amendment implications. That means the regents could stand on the front steps of Regent Hall and say, 'We're firing the following 25 professors because we disagree with their politics' and they'd have as much immunity from lawsuits under the ruling as a judge does."
Regarding CU's side of the story, Lane says, "They basically recycled the same argument they made to Judge Naves -- that Ward Churchill got fired for plagiarism and fraud, and the university gets to decide if people violate their rules." But in Lane's view, the regents "are convicted civil rights violators, and the jury already rejected that very argument."
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There's no time frame on when the court of appeals will issue a ruling -- and if the decision goes against Churchill, he won't meekly accept it, Lane says: "The remaining steps in this case for whichever party loses is to ask the Colorado Supreme Court to review it, and Ward Churchill is ready to go there. And we can also ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review it, and he's willing to do that."
Lane adds that he's received friends of the court briefs from "many organizations that are extremely interested in seeing that the Constitution is protected here, including the Society of American Law Teachers, the American Association of University Professors, the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild. That's very unusual."
Like everything else in this case.