Free speech isn’t without consequences |

Free speech isn’t without consequences

When it comes to free speech, everyone knows you don’t have the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. But do you have a right to yell “Nazi!” on a university campus?

That’s the controversy over Professor Ward Churchill, who drew nationwide attention to the University of Colorado’s ethnic studies department after his essay on the 9/11 terrorist attacks came to light.

“If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it,” he wrote.

Comparing the victims in the World Trade Center to “little Eichmanns” caused a stir. The fact he is a tenured professor at a publicly funded university raised people’s ire. When Colorado Gov. Bill Owens called for him to be fired, it ignited a furious debate over free speech.

Churchill is clearly over the edge, saying things like the United States should be removed from the planet and encouraging more terrorist attacks like 9/11.

He obviously has the right to say and write whatever he wants. What university regents are trying to decide is whether they have the right to fire him over it.

Well, here’s the purpose of free speech: To promote a marketplace of ideas, where even the most radical and unpopular opinions may be expressed openly so the public – the taxpayers, the voters, the backbone of democracy – may decide which ones are sensible and which ones are nuttier than a jar of Planter’s.

That’s my definition, anyway. And what we’ve learned so far in this debate is that Ward Churchill is a nut case.

Here’s another way of expressing it, which I found in a column by University of Washington professor Edward Alexander: “Some ideas,” wrote George Orwell over half a century ago, “are so stupid that only intellectuals could believe them.”

None of which really answers the question of whether Churchill can be fired from a public university, where he is being cheered by some faculty members and students as a martyr against censorship.

Legally, I think, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

Ever since Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. made his famous analogy to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, the American justice system has recognized that freedom of speech isn’t absolute.

It has become increasingly complicated in more recent years, as jurisdictions pass laws against “hate crimes” that take into account a person’s words (and thoughts, apparently) as a factor in the commission of violence.

Certainly workplace decorum has evolved over the years. Anyone who walks around an office or job site these days making disparaging cracks about minorities is soon going to be talking to himself in the unemployment line.

Same thing with sexist or sexually harassing remarks. You will be fired.

Is all this just too politically correct? Are we letting social politeness infringe on one of the guarantees of the First Amendment?

There is, without question, an impact. People don’t go around saying things they once did, or at least they’re more cautious about who might hear. That’s called a “chilling effect,” when you tend to stay quiet simply because of the reaction you might cause.

But I don’t think the fundamental right to free speech has been damaged. I think people have been reminded that free speech carries responsibility.

When this country was founded, free speech might get you killed. That’s still true in places around the world, including Iraq.

But we’re not talking about anything so extreme here. We’re talking about the right to keep your job, no matter what you say. And I don’t think that’s going to fly, not even on a university campus.

Ward Churchill and some of his faculty mates think his bosses have no right to fire him over unpopular – some would say seditious – remarks. My interpretation would be that he thinks he is entitled to the job, that he is unwilling to give it up in order to more freely express his beliefs, that he somehow is owed a paycheck and a platform for his opinions.

Oh, yeah. Churchill is a tenured professor. One dictionary defines tenured as “appointed for life and not subject to dismissal except for a grave crime.”

Pretty nice gig if you can get it. Unaccountable to anyone. Guaranteed job, not subject to the whims of employer, public or consumer.

Nobody is saying Ward Churchill should be thrown in jail for what he said. Nobody’s fining him. Nobody’s telling him what he can or can’t say. Nobody is saying he has to leave the country.

But free speech is not without consequence. I think Ward Churchill should be free to look for another job.

– Barry Smith is editor of the Carson City Nevada Appeal.

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