From The Denver Post
Because I'm a nostalgia buff, I spent my day in Courtroom 6 over at City Hall, watching the last actor at least the first day of the last act - of the Ward Churchill follies.
If it seems as if it all began so long ago, that's because it did all begin so long ago. Certainly it was a simpler time, a time when talk radio had nothing better to discuss than a then-obscure CU professor who had set off a firestorm, followed by a witch hunt, followed by the usual burning at the stake.
You remember. It was all Churchill, all the time. And then, when Churchill was obscure no longer, it finally all went away, and we moved on to other things, like Michelle Obama's propensity for wearing sleeveless dresses.
But now, because this is America, there's the long-promised courtroom finale, in which people (read: the lawyers) get their day " or, in this case, approximately three weeks " in Denver District Court.
It's worth seeing, if only to remember what the case was really all about and maybe get the next case right.
Whatever you hear, the Churchill story is not about what the revisionists tell you it's about - that Churchill was deservedly fired for plagiarism and other acts of academic fraud. He may have been guilty of all those things. He may deserve to have been fired. He was certainly guilty of writing an essay that violated the first rule of essay-writing: Never compare anyone to a Nazi, even to a little Eichmann.
But however guilty Churchill may or may not have been, he was never as guilty as the University of Colorado.
I don't know how the trial will turn out. But one thing is for sure: For CU, the chickens - yes, the very poultry Churchill made infamous in his 9/11 essay title - are, in fact, finally coming home to roost. If you don't believe me, go watch the trial. It's free. And, today, Bill Owens is expected to be on the witness stand. How can you pass that up?
If Day One was not exactly the hoped-for circus - a disappointment that can happen when CU's ex-interim-chancellor-and-now-provost Phil DiStefano (a bureaucrat's version of bureaucrat) is the day's star witness - it did bring back some memories.
Who can forget, for example, Owens stepping all over the First Amendment on his way to a lusty date with Bill O'Reilly's cameras?
Or the committee hearings and subcommittee hearings and the CU regents' meetings, including the "public" meeting about Churchill at which no one from the public was actually allowed to speak?
Two people were arrested for loudly protesting the ban on public speaking that day. And it was after that meeting that then-Gov. Owens warned that free speech could be dangerous. Sometimes they make it too easy. Of course, as I might have mentioned at the time, Owens used his free speech - and the state's dime - to demand that then-CU president Betsy Hoffman fire Churchill or risk losing state funding. CU Regent Michael Carrigan, a lawyer, mentioned to me also at the time that Owens might be making Churchill "a very wealthy man" at taxpayer expense. And here we are.
David Lane, Churchill's lawyer, put the question to DiStefano at the trial:
"Would you agree that there was a howling mob at the gates demanding the head of Ward Churchill?"
DiStefano weakly - or was it meekly? - answered, "Yes."
It was a head that, as Lane pointed out, the fearful CU administration was more than happy to give up.
Lane kept coming. The eight jurors - two are alternates - are all young, or at least youngish. They may not have been paying as much attention to Churchill as we were at the time. They were paying attention, though, to Lane, who specializes in these kinds of cases, and to Patrick O'Rourke, the CU lawyer.
The jurors were watching as Lane asked DiStefano about an e-mail sent at the time by CU law professor Mimi Wesson, who would head the committee investigating Churchill's scholarship difficulties.
In the e-mail, she compared Churchill to O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson and Bill Clinton. And Lane asked Di Stefano if he wanted to be judged, or, uh, prejudged, by someone who considered him a "a murdering, child-molesting, philandering liar."
The law is complicated, but the case is easy. CU wanted Churchill out. The cries for Churchill's head predated any public knowledge of any academic fraud. There was only the essay. People were outraged. And many wanted him fired because, in times of duress, we tend to forget about things like the First Amendment. I'm not asking for extra credit. I get paid to remember the First Amendment.
The people at CU - I give them no better than a D-minus - also get paid to remember that. Instead, they proved - if I can, blush, quote myself - that even if a witch hunt turns up an actual witch, it's still a witch hunt.
Mike Littwin writes Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Reach him at 303-954-5428 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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