Ward Churchill Butts Heads With a Reporter

Where Professor Ward Churchill goes, controversy follows — and so, usually, do charges, counter-charges, confusion and contradictions. If the truth is out there regarding an October 2 class taught by the former University of Colorado-Boulder staffer, during which a Churchill devotee allegedly manhandled a reporter, it's currently being obscured by a miasma of conflicting stories.

Two of the main players will be familiar to Westword readers. Benjamin Whitmer dominated a column about, a gleefully profane Churchill-boosting blog at which he toiled anonymously before being outed as a CU instructor ("Try Again," January 18). And Heath Urie appeared in relation to a pair of open-meetings-related cases — one in 2004, when he was a University of Northern Colorado journalism student, the other just prior to his move from the Canyon Courier to the Boulder Daily Camera last summer ("Open Case," August 2).

A month into his Camera tenure, Urie was assigned to witness Churchill's return to CU following several months of tumultuous events. In July, CU president Hank Brown fired Churchill for academic misconduct. Shortly thereafter, Churchill's attorney, David Lane, sued the school, claiming, among other things, that his client's First Amendment right to free speech had been ravaged. (Churchill contends that CU targeted him because of the 2005 media firestorm stoked by an essay describing 9/11 victims as "little Eichmanns.") But CU spokesman Bronson Hilliard says Churchill was never banned from treading university grounds: "As long as he respects the law while he's on campus, he's welcome as a private citizen."

With that in mind, a group of CU students reserved a room under a longstanding university procedure and arranged for Churchill to teach a course titled "ReVisioning American History: Colonization, Genocide and Formation of the U.S. Settler State." In a statement, Churchill stressed that his presentation "is an entirely voluntary exercise for all parties involved. It carries no credit, fulfills no institutional requirements, involves payment of no tuition, entails no paycheck to its instructor."

Whitmer, who wasn't among the event organizers, says he arrived with Churchill to find Urie and Camera photographer Joshua Lawton waiting. Urie "approached and asked for comment, and he was told, 'No comment,'" Whitmer recalls. "Then he asked to go in the class, and he was told, 'No.' And then we told him the rules of the class," including a prohibition against press attendance and recording devices. After that, Whitmer continues, "we got in a little debate about his right to be in the class, and we told him several times he had no such right."

Hilliard verifies this interpretation. "People say, 'It's a public university,' and that's true," he notes. "But a surprising number of meetings that take place on campus can be closed except to selected audiences: faculty meetings, departmental administrative meetings, and also student organizational meetings" — the category under which the Churchill class falls. "I discussed this with our counsel, and there are legal precedents." Hilliard's not a fan of the restrictions in this instance, but he acknowledges that Churchill and company were perfectly within their rights to make the decisions they did.

The same goes for refusing entry to three others aside from Urie and Lawton. Whitmer denies they were barred for "ideological reasons," despite the fact that he suspected them of being Churchill opponents: "I believe they were young Republicans," he allows. Instead, he says, they got booted because they agreed to sneak a recorder into the room on Urie's behalf, in violation of the aforementioned strictures. But Whitmer admits that the guidelines were bent when it came to Aaron Musick and Sara Fossum, a writer and photographer representing CU's online newspaper, the Campus Press. Rather than being shunned, Whitmer says, they were let in "because they were CU students."

The course soon got under way with about thirty attendees, by the Camera's estimate, or between fifty and seventy, according to Whitmer. Minutes later, Whitmer says, Urie "barged in the door yelling at the top of his lungs, and he had a recording device running in his hand. It was pretty obvious to everybody that he was trying to provoke an incident. I stood up and put my hand out. My hand was on him, but I didn't shove him, which is what he told the police; that's ridiculous. And then another gentleman I was with took him by his arm and tried to escort him out. He went kind of apeshit, and then he left the room."

After another fifteen minutes or so, CU campus police arrived and asked to speak with Whitmer and the other man, identified as Josh Dillabaugh, a CU sophomore who's active in Colorado's American Indian Movement. Neither were cited at the time, but Commander Brad Wiesley of the CU police department says Urie pressed charges against Dillabaugh. A CU detective arranged to meet Dillabaugh at his Boulder residence to deliver a summons, Wiesley continues, but the suspect wasn't there at the appointed time and later told the officer he'd "have to come find him." As a result, a warrant has been issued in Dillabaugh's name for misdemeanor harassment, an offense that carries a sentence ranging from a $50 fine to six months in jail.

Dillabaugh didn't respond to interview requests, and he's hardly alone. Urie deferred to his superiors at the Camera, who have effectively muzzled him — an extremely dubious stance given the themes of free speech and open access at the heart of this matter. City editor Matt Sebastian did issue a brief statement that concludes, "We fully support a journalist's right to do his job without being physically harmed for asking a simple question."

As for photographer Lawton, he apparently didn't get the memo about clamming up, and his account of the Churchill episode couldn't be more different from Whitmer's. Lawton says he and Urie were scrupulously polite with Churchill, even when the prof "made some snide remarks about the Camera and its supposed bias issues"; Churchill singled out Lawton, who'd angered him a couple of years back by taking a snapshot in one of his classes. Later, Lawton goes on, Urie asked the three men described by Whitmer as young Republicans to take in his recorder, only to learn afterward that this was forbidden. The Camera twosome consequently hunkered down to wait until the lecture wrapped up in the hopes of chatting with departing students — but the plan changed when Lawton looked through the door's window and saw the Campus Press reps.

Lawton says Urie stepped approximately two feet through the doorway to ask why the Press reporters were inside while he was outside. "That's when they corralled him," Lawton maintains. "They started grabbing Heath's notes, and then [Dillabaugh] grabbed Heath's arm and tried to drag him out of there. Heath said, 'Don't touch me!,' and then we walked out." He insists that there was no barging, no yelling, nothing out of bounds. "We weren't overly aggressive," he says. "If we'd been overly aggressive, we would have gone in the classroom from the get-go, not waited in the hallway."

Such claims are "an absolute joke," says Whitmer, who calls Urie "a lying little punk." He also brands Camera managers as hypocrites for not running a letter he wrote on the topic in either its print edition or an online blog that pledges to "publish all of the appropriate letters" the paper receives, "in the spirit of openness." When asked via e-mail about the letter on October 11, Clint Talbott, the Camera's editorial-page editor, responded that it had been omitted because of miscommunication between him and the blog overseer. Before long, Whitmer's screed appeared above a comment by Talbott that reads, "The Camera disputes this version of events and stands by its reporting."

Should it? Ken Bonetti, a CU staff member who sat in on the class, doesn't think so — but he's a longtime Churchill backer. The Campus Press's Musick, a CU sophomore, is a more objective observer, and his recollections differ from those offered by either Whitmer or Lawton. Musick says Urie didn't come into the classroom "trying to make a scene" and confirms that he was only a few feet inside the room when Whitmer and Dillabaugh converged on him, although he thinks the reporter struggled a bit before splitting. Nonetheless, he's critical of Urie for putting himself in the position of becoming the story rather than simply covering it. "Once he stepped forward into the classroom," Musick says, "he crossed the line."

That seems to happen a lot when Churchill's around.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts