DENVER A judge refused yesterday to reinstate a University of Colorado professor who was fired on plagiarism charges after he likened some Sept. 11 terrorist-attack victims to a Nazi leader.
Judge Larry J. Naves of Denver District Court vacated a jury’s ruling from April that found the firing of Ward Churchill was in retaliation for his protected speech.
Churchill wrote an essay after the 2001 terrorist attacks calling the World Trade Center victims "little Eichmanns," a reference to Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi who helped orchestrate the Holocaust. University officials were pressured to fire Churchill after that essay gained wide attention in 2005, but they concluded they couldn't as the statements were protected under the First Amendment.
However, university officials launched an investigation into the research behind Churchill’s other writings, and in 2007 he was fired on the plagiarism charges and other research-misconduct allegations.
Churchill sued, alleging his firing was improper and seeking his job back. A jury ruled Churchill shouldn't have been fired, but the decision on whether to reinstate him was left up to Naves.
Naves ruled yesterday in Churchill v. University of Colorado that reinstatement would undermine the university's findings of research misconduct, and would be inappropriate because Churchill’s relationship with the university was irreparably damaged. Naves also noted that jurors awarded Churchill only $1 in damages. He said the low figure meant that the jury concluded Churchill did not incur any actual damages.
Naves also held that the same judicial immunity that applies to judges applies to university officials because they were acting in a "quasi-judicial capacity" when they decided to fire Churchill. He found the decision by the university's governing Board of Regents "occurred with sufficient procedural protections."
“Although Professor Churchill asserts that quasi-judicial immunity would leave him without remedy, he is mistaken,” Naves wrote. The judge said that although the regents could not be sued for damages, their decision could be appealed to district court.
Churchill's attorney, David Lane, said he would appeal the ruling to the Colorado Court of Appeals. Lane says Naves’ ruling means the regents could fire Churchill if they didn't like what he said, or even because of his race or religion.
"This judge says that's OK," Lane said. "If your First Amendment rights are violated by the state of Colorado, don't look for justice in Denver District Court."
University President Bruce Benson issued a statement saying the judge had "appropriately applied the law." ''This ruling recognizes that the regents have to make important and difficult decisions. The threat of litigation should not be used to influence those decisions," he said.
The university vigorously opposed Churchill's reinstatement, saying his firing was justified and that if he did return, the relationship between him and the university "would not be an amicable one."
Naves also said Churchill had shown hostility to the university in his comments after the jury verdict by calling Colorado University a "not very glorified vo-tec, a trade school" and that the trial witnesses against him were "unprincipled liars."
Naves said the university was right to fear that it would be hard to recruit and retain teachers if Churchill were reinstated and that his return would create a perception that the school tolerated research misconduct.
First Amendment Center Online staff contributed to this story.