February 19, 2010
Contacts:Rachel Myers, ACLU national
University Of Colorado Must Reinstate Professor Whose Free Speech Rights Were Violated
New York– The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Colorado, and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) submitted a brief yesterday to a Colorado Court of Appeals arguing that the University of Colorado, a publicly funded university, should reinstate a tenured professor who was wrongly terminated from his job there for exercising his right to free speech.
"The First Amendment prohibits public officials from suppressing lawful speech or retaliating against those who engage in such speech, no matter how unpopular or offensive the speech may be to some people," said Aden Fine, staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group. "That is especially the case in the university setting, where the Supreme Court has made clear that First Amendment freedoms must be vigilantly protected."
After he was fired from the teaching post he had held for many years, Ward Churchill sued the University and its Board of Regents alleging that he was unconstitutionally terminated because of a controversial and unpopular essay he had written concerning the events on September 11. In April 2009, a jury agreed that Churchill was fired for expressing his personal opinions, which is a clear violation of his First Amendment rights.
However, a judge denied Churchill's petition to be reinstated to his job, essentially denying him any relief for the blatant denial of his rights. Churchill is appealing that decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals. The ACLU, ACLU of Colorado, AAUP and NCAC filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting reversal of the trial court's decision, arguing that plaintiffs whose constitutional rights have been violated must be provided with a remedy, and that in this case, Churchill should be reinstated to the job from which he was wrongly fired.
"Denying a remedy to people whose rights have been violated amounts to gutting the Constitution," said Mariko Hirose, a legal fellow with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group. "The court has a responsibility to ensure the University of Colorado rights its wrong and reinstates Professor Churchill immediately."
"Unless the trial court's ruling is corrected, university professors will receive the chilling message that silence is smart and voicing unpopular views can be fatal to their careers," said Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director. "The First Amendment right to speak out is meaningful only if it is enforceable in court."
The friend-of-the-court brief is available on the ACLU's website at: www.aclu.org/free-speech/ward-churchill-v-university-colorado-et-al-amicus-brief
Attorneys include Fine and Hirose of the ACLU First Amendment Working Group, Silverstein of the ACLU of Colorado, Rachel Levinson of AAUP and Joan Bertin of NCAC.
The American Association of University Professors is a nonprofit charitable and educational organization that promotes academic freedom by supporting tenure, academic due process, shared governance and standards of quality in higher education. The AAUP has over 48,000 members at colleges and universities throughout the United States.