Professor Ward Churchill stirred up the proverbial hornet's nest when he publicly insulted the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Now many of his students and colleagues at the University of Colorado have jumped to his defense - and, in the process, illustrated the double standards infecting our nation's universities.
Suddenly, the same academic elite who champion political correctness and enforce campus speech codes have rediscovered the First Amendment. Of course, it took an unbalanced nut case from their side to open their eyes.
That may seem harsh, but consider what Mr. Churchill said. In an essay published just after September 11, he called the people killed in the World Trade Center's Twin Towers "little Eichmanns" (after executed Nazi Adolph Eichmann). "True enough, they were civilians of a sort," he wrote. "But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire." So when Mr Churchill was invited to speak at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., students and alumni understandably expressed outrage.
Mr. Churchill's supporters see it differently. Emma Perez, associate chair of Colorado University's ethnic studies department, says its faculty gives "full and unconditional support" to Mr. Churchill and his First Amendment right to express himself. "Full and unconditional support" of an individual who praised the "gallant sacrifices" of the "combat teams" that struck America.
Where was this full and unconditional support a few years ago at a peer liberal arts college of Hamilton's? At my alma mater, Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., liberals were tripping over themselves to condemn the Record, the student newspaper, for running a controversial paid advertisement.
The controversy erupted over the suggestion that anti-Semitism - or "Arab and Islamic Jew-hatred," as author David Horowitz called it in his ad - was the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Regardless of your opinions, Mr. Horowitz's view has more validity than Mr. Churchill's claim the defenseless and innocent September 11 victims were "little Eichmanns." Not so in the twisted world of American higher education.
Almost immediately, five professors and the college chaplain and associate chaplain condemned Mr. Horowitz' paid expression: "Hate speech and inflammatory rhetoric poison the public sphere, and subtly censor victims by frightening them from participating in the arena of public discourse. At a liberal arts college, we can and should hope for better."
One doesn't find the same concern today that Mr. Churchill's language might "subtly censor" or "frighten" those who disagree with his characterization of Americans from "participating in the arena of public discourse."
The next week, 24 faculty members (the Williams faculty only had about 220 at the time) joined the chorus condemning the paper: "The David Horowitz book advertisement in the Oct. 29 issue contains the sort of racial and religious bigotry and hatred that should have no place on this campus."
Sounds very different from the sentiments of Hamilton College's director of communications: "Hamilton, like any institution committed to the free exchange of ideas, brings to its campus people of diverse opinions, often controversial." But what's different between the Churchill and Horowitz cases - other than the author's viewpoint?
For its part, the Record (of which I was executive editor) stood by its decision to run the ad: "The public sphere is a place where any idea should be allowed so that it can be argued on its own merits and, if necessary, rejected on its merits."
Ward Churchill has a right to his despicable views, and he has a right to air them publicly. Now he is finding the public sphere is ruthless in rejecting hatred, bigotry and idiocy.
Mr. Churchill exercised his First Amendment rights in upholding the "gallant sacrifices" of terrorist thugs. Hamilton students and alumni exercised their First Amendment rights by protesting use of college resources to bring a notorious charlatan to campus. Similarly, Colorado citizens are expressing their rights by rejecting use of their tax dollars to fund Mr. Churchill's "scholarship."
A consistent understanding of the First Amendment, however, has no place in the perverse world of American academia. Liberals instead have created an environment where ideas that challenge their worldview can be dismissed as "bigotry and hatred that should have no place on this campus," while actual bigotry and hatred is defended.
As Ward Churchill would say, "Gimme a break."
Michael Needham is chief of staff at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in Washington Times