On Monday, Colorado administrators announced they had canceled the speech by ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill for Tuesday because of security concerns. Earlier this month, Hamilton College in upstate New York canceled another speech by him because of death threats against the professor and its administrators.
The dispute over the professor is one of several controversies that have roiled the Boulder campus.
In his filing Tuesday in Denver federal court, Churchill asked a judge to prohibit CU from canceling the speech, calling the last-minute decision to do so "nothing but an effort to stifle me and not let me speak on a matter of public and personal concern."
"I was intending to explain my meaning to the audience, in particular the CU student body," Churchill said in an affidavit. His lawsuit alleges the university violated his rights and those of the people who hoped to hear him speak.
A hearing on the matter was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, three hours before Churchill was to speak. A university spokeswoman did not immediately return calls, but campus police spokesman Lt. Tim McGraw said authorities are prepared to provide security if the judge clears the way for the speech.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Churchill said he mourns for the
people killed in the 2001 attacks. He said he did not advocate attacks against the United States, but believed they were inevitable because of the way the U.S. treats other countries.
The university in the past year has weathered a sex scandal in the football program and the alcohol poisoning death of a fraternity pledge at a campus trying to shed its party-school image. But nothing has incited more passion and outrage than Churchill.
Two students were arrested at a Board of Regents meeting last week and swastikas were spray-painted on Churchill's pickup truck.
Churchill resigned as chairman of the ethnic studies department, and school officials are reviewing his speeches and writings to determine whether he should be fired from his professor job as well.
Just exactly how free Churchill — as a tenured, taxpayer-supported professor — is to speak his mind is the fundamental question being argued.
Churchill has been defending an essay he wrote shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks comparing those killed to "little Eichmanns," because of their participation in what he called "the mighty engine of profit." Adolf Eichmann was the Nazi who organized plans to exterminate European Jews.
The essay, "Some People Push Back," attracted little notice until last month, after Churchill was invited to speak at Hamilton College, a private liberal arts school. Hamilton professor Theodore Eismeier said he found the essay on the Internet during what he calls "a casual effort to learn more about Churchill."
Within days, the essay was national news. New York Gov. George Pataki called Churchill a "bigoted terrorist supporter" and the relative of one Sept. 11 victim called him a "nut case." The Colorado Legislature branded the comments "evil and inflammatory."
Churchill last week told a magazine that more terror attacks may be necessary to radicalize Americans to fight the misuse of U.S. power.
Inwith Satya magazine, he was asked about the effectiveness of protests of U.S. policies and the Iraq war, and responded: "One of the things I've suggested is that it may be that more 9/11s are necessary."
The interview prompted Gov. Bill Owens to renew his call for Churchill's firing.
"It's amazing that the more we look at Ward Churchill, the more outrageous, treasonous statements we hear from Churchill," Owens said.
"I don't believe I owe an apology," Churchill said Friday on CNN's "Paula Zahn Now" program — his first public comments since the University of Colorado began a review that could lead to his dismissal.
Civil liberties advocates say Churchill's comments would have provoked controversy in any era. But the massive loss of life on Sept. 11 intensified the reaction, said Cathryn Hazouri, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
The ACLU issued a statement defending Churchill's right to speak out and called on regents, legislators and the governor "to stop threatening Mr. Churchill's job because of the content of his opinions."
Scholars worry the backlash will leave other professors fearful of challenging conventional opinion.
"We recognize that academic freedom comes with limits, but we also know that any interference with academic freedom without strong cause sends a very chilling message to the entire academic community," said Barbara Bintliff, chairwoman of the Boulder Faculty Assembly.
David Horowitz, a champion of conservative causes who has long accused American universities of overstocking their faculties with leftists, said firing Churchill would violate his First Amendment rights and set a bad precedent.
He called instead for an inquiry into the university's hiring and promotion procedures "to see how Ward Churchill could get to the pinnacle of the faculty, to be the chair of an entire department."
"This isn't like a guy who was suddenly exposed," Horowitz said. "This is a guy who's been out in the open for 30 years and was promoted."