Ward Churchill's victory in a Denver District Court Thursday not only represents another victory for the First Amendment, but a victory for all the people of Colorado.
And you can thank the jury for that.
So far, none of the jurors have explained their verdict which ruled Churchill's rights to free speech were violated by the University of Colorado at Boulder, which fired him. The jury awarded the former CU professor only $1 in damages, putting enough of a devaluing influence on the decision that attorney Scott Robinson wrote in The Denver Post:
"Free speech triumphs. But at least when it comes to professor Ward Churchill, it isn't worth that much."
Shame on Robinson.
As an attorney, Robinson knows, as so many people at CU knew, that free speech is worth every penny we spend on it because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that without it the republic would not survive.
Which is why the $1 Churchill won is not without significance.
I am currently reading (finally) Anthony Lewis' 1991 book, "Make No Law," about the New York Times v. Sullivan decision which gave the press and the citizens of the United States secure freedom to say and write what they like about public officials, unless they know what they say is wrong when they deliberately say it anyway.
Again, since the jury's not talking, you have to read into their verdict what you will (and be perfectly happy interpreting it whatever way you like since your right to do so is guaranteed by the First Amendment), and even write about it when your interpretation is all wet.
What I see in the jury's decision is a strong endorsement of free speech in the face of dire consequences from public officials, and yet a concern for Colorado's leading public university and it's money problems. The jury knew CU couldn't afford to pay Churchill a large damage claim for violating his civil rights, and yet, perhaps, also knew the state should be able to afford attorney fees since it was a former governor, a former senator in Hank Brown, the former CU president, and a former Republican Party chairman and candidate for governor, who forced the state into court to defend its woeful decision to fire Churchill in the first place.
Make no mistake: All these people knew the financial consequences to the state for trying to defend the university for making constitutional infringements on the civil rights of one of its employees, and yet they took no heed of the people of Colorado's financial plight, especially regarding one of its strapped institutions of higher education. They all had a political point to make, and damit, cost or no cost, they were going to make it.
Former Gov. Bill Owens remarked post verdict: "I think the $1 in damages accurately reflects the jury's appreciation for Ward Churchill's warm and endearing personality."
I'll always defend the old governor's right to say such a silly thing, but the people of Colorado, who will pay anywhere from a half million to a whole million in legal fees for an attempt to keep someone else from exercising the same right, ought to take Owens to task for having provoked the whole legal fiasco in the first place. Perhaps they should ask him to pay the fees!
Bruce Benson's comment is just as ridiculous considering the legal advice available to him. He said CU administrators -- he is current CU president and was once a candidate for governor and state Republican Party chair -- "strongly disagree" with the jury's decision and:
"It doesn't change the fact that more than 20 of Ward Churchill's faculty peers on three separate panels unanimously found he engaged in deliberate and repeated plagiarism, falsification and fabrication that fall below the minimum standards of professional conduct."
Neither, however, does any of that change the fact that Churchill has a right to say what he likes even when what he says is wrong, especially when he is speaking about government.
Benson knows that; and his attorneys at CU certainly knew that. Former Gov. Bill Owens should have known it, too, when he called on CU to fire Churchill.
You can forgive Owens, though, for not remembering it now. Now, judging from his statement, Owens believes First Amendment rights should be adjudicated on the basis of one's personality rather than on one's constitutional freedoms.