Embattled former professor Ward Churchill failed what may be his last chance in a five-year civil rights lawsuit against the University of Colorado-Boulder (CU). The Colorado Supreme Court ruled September 10 that university officials enjoyed immunity from legal action when they fired him.
The state’s high court affirmed the Colorado Court of Appeals and the state trial court, “both of which held that Professor Ward Churchill was not entitled to any of the remedies he sought,” and said the state Supreme Court “holds that the Regents’ termination proceeding was a quasi-judicial proceeding and the Regents are entitled to absolute immunity.”
The state’s high court also upheld the trial court’s ruling that denied the former tenured professor’s reinstatement or front pay in lieu of regaining his position.
Although issues around quasi-judicial immunity and allegedly retaliatory employment investigations are not actionable under federal civil rights law, the lower courts found, the state Supreme Court remanded the case to the appeals and trial courts for further proceedings consistent with the high court’s affirmation “on slightly different grounds.”
Neither the U. S. Supreme Court nor federal courts have provided clear standards on whether an allegedly retaliatory action for free speech implicates a clear statutory or constitutional right or law in terms of Churchill’s claim, the state Supreme Court said.
Churchill, former chair of CU’s ethnic studies department, had sought a reversal of rulings issued by Denver District Court, which in 2009 threw out a jury’s verdict even though jurors had determined that Churchill’s firing was in retaliation for an essay he wrote.
The former professor, who wrote extensively on Native issues, ran academic and legal gauntlets after a post-9/11 online essay he wrote in 2001 referred to some World Trade Center workers as “little Eichmanns”—a reference to SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, one of the primary planners of the Holocaust in World War II.
CU later found his essay and other writings covered by free-speech protections, but after outrage was expressed by pundits, media and politicians, CU apologized publicly for the 9/11 essay and said other allegations had surfaced that required an extensive investigation of “every word” of Churchill’s scholarship.
After CU concluded its close scrutiny of Churchill’s work, he was fired in 2007 for research misconduct. CU’s decision led to the resignation of CU’s president, who warned against a “new McCarthyism.”
David Lane, Churchill’s attorney, said he would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which takes only a fraction of the petitions presented for review.
Churchill has sold his home in Boulder, home of CU, and is said to be moving out of state.