Ward Churchill at the Dalton Trumbo Fountain: Academic Freedom in the Aftermath of 9/11

By Ellen Schrecker

How many of the three hundred people who gathered around the Dalton Trumbo Fountain in front of the University of Colorado’s student center on March 3, 2005, to hear Ward Churchill speak understood the irony of the location? Trumbo, a successful screenwriter and Colorado alumnus, had been one of the so-called “Hollywood Ten” who were imprisoned and blacklisted for defying the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. Churchill, like Trumbo an outspoken radical, had just become the target of a nationwide campaign to eject him from his position as a tenured professor of American Indian studies on the Colorado faculty. In a hasty essay, written to explain why the perpetrators of the attack on the World Trade Center would have been so hostile to the United States, he had characterized the 9/11 victims as “little Eichmanns.” That unfortunate phrase, unremarked at the time, emerged with a vengeance three years later in conjunction with a planned speech he was to give at Hamilton College in upstate New York. Catapulted into notoriety by right-wing bloggers and talk-show hosts, Churchill then came under attack by Colorado politicians, who forced the university to investigate and then dismiss its controversial faculty member.

Because Churchill’s outrageous comment and sloppy scholarship were to provide ammunition for his critics, his case does not seem quite as clear-cut a violation of civil liberties as Trumbo’s conviction for contempt and subsequent blacklisting. But, in the late 1940s, as Trumbo was fighting for his First Amendment rights, most contemporaries refused to support him. He was a Communist—and everybody knew the Constitution did not protect Communists. So, one wonders, will the University of Colorado have second thoughts once the current furor subsides? Admittedly, it may be too soon to answer that question, but a closer look at what happened to Churchill may give us some insight into the current state of academic freedom.

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Ellen Schrecker is a professor of history at Yeshiva University and has written extensively on McCarthyism and academic freedom; among her publications are Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (1998) and No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (1986). The former editor of Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors, her most recent book, The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Academic Freedom, Corporatization, and the Assault on the University will appear in the summer of 2010.

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