Oral arguments will be heard by the Colorado Supreme Court June 7 in the case of controversial former University of Colorado (CU) professor Ward Churchill, fired by CU in 2007 for “research misconduct” but in reality, he contends, for a 9/11-related essay in violation of his free speech rights.
Churchill, formerly of CU’s ethnic studies faculty, was fired after public attention was directed to an essay he had written that seemed to implicate some World Trade Center workers in U.S. foreign policy that he contended preceded and contributed to the attack.
The court has been asked to review a Colorado Court of Appeals ruling in 2011 under circumstances that include whether CU’s detailed and intensive scrutiny into Churchill’s scholarship violated his First Amendment rights.
He contends the state appeals court “did not address the fact that the investigation at issue was accompanied by threats of discipline and termination” and that the acting CU chancellor and several regents acknowledged an investigatory committee was trying to find cause for dismissal.
Also under review are whether CU and the CU Board of Regents have quasi-judicial immunity from lawsuit when they fire a tenured professor and whether Churchill should have been reinstated after a jury decided unanimously he was fired for protected free speech rather than for research misconduct.
Although Churchill’s attorney, civil rights lawyer David Lane, said earlier the chances of the state’s high court reviewing the case were “slim,” legal observers felt a review was possible because the issue of whether an investigation alone constitutes an adverse employment action has not been resolved in the U.S. Supreme Court.
His appeal has been supported by friend-of-the-court briefs by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of University Professors, the National Lawyers Guild, and others.