Cognative Dissident

Friday, February 4

Ward Churchill and the First Amendment

Instapundit, Eugene Volohk, and Professor Bainbridge all* come out against firing Ward Churchill for his noxious rhetoric, for reasons that I can best sum up as, "Firing him would violate the principle of academic tenure, and furthermore constitute a threat to free speech."

I can understand the defense of tenure, even if I disagree with it. They're academics protecting, self-interestedly or on principle, the idea that no member of the academy should be fired simply for the outlandishness or repugnance of their views to the majority. That's a reasonable principle, and I understand how it clearly applies here. I happen to think that it's wrong, and that tenure and the protection it provides is one of the reasons that academia is so pervasively biased in one direction, but that's another argument (Maybe if we could get rid of some of the leftwing hacks, there'd be more room for some conservatives, eh Professor Bainbridge?).

What I don't understand is the invocation of the First Amendment (and I don't mean that rhetorically, when three law professors invoke constitutional protections for speech, I'm probably out of my depth if I want to argue). But here's how I see it, and maybe someone can explain it to me.

The University of Colorado is not a primarily publicly-funded university, and as such I don't see how canning the guy threatens free speech. No one is preventing him from airing his views, vile as they may be. If he wants to publish a book and can find a publisher, nobody's going to stop him.

It seems as if the good professors are saying that we're obligated to continue providing a platform for Churchill's speech. How can that possibly be a reasonable interpretation of the First Amendment? I don't see that the First Amendment is supposed to protect people from the consequences of their speech, only prevent the government from interfering with them saying it. Obviously if the consequences include threats on the life or property of the speaker, it's the obligation of the police to prevent acts of violence or destruction, but beyond that, what is the constitutional issue in firing people as a consequence of their views (I would guess this gets into laws about discrimination, but don't really know).

So what's the deal here? Is firing Churchill really a constitutional issue, or is simply the principle of free speech that the professors want to protect?

*Glenn doesn't explicitly state that his reasoning is based on the First amendment, but endorses the views of the other two, who do explicitly evoke constitutional protections of speech.


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