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Free Speech

Churchill Trial Update: Right Wing/Conservative Assault
By John Aguilar
Mar 14, 2009, 12:18pm

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From the Daily Camera

Betsy Hoffman testifies via video at Churchill trial

Former CU president describes an �all-out assault� from right wing to fire professor

DENVER � Right-wing media and conservative politicians launched an �all-out assault� on the University of Colorado in the weeks following the discovery of a controversial essay by ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill, said former CU President Betsy Hoffman in a videotaped deposition shown to a jury Friday.

�It was an all-out assault on Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado, and me,� she testified, likening it to a modern-day version of McCarthyism.

She said she would have resigned if the regents had fired the professor for his essay, which she viewed as protected political expression.

Hoffman began her term as CU president in September 2000 and announced her resignation in March 2005, less than two months after Churchill�s essay on the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks � in which he compared victims in the twin towers to an infamous Nazi architect of the Holocaust � erupted in the public consciousness.

The former president testified that she eventually concluded the attack had largely been orchestrated by conservative media outlets and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization she described as having the goal of reducing left-wing bias on university campuses.

Hoffman testified that former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, who she said was a founding member of ACTA, told her in a �short, threatening� call to �fire Ward Churchill tomorrow.�

When she told him she couldn�t, Hoffman said the Republican governor told her he would �unleash his plan.� She said she didn�t know what he meant at the time.

The governor, who testified at the trial earlier this week, said he didn�t recall telling Hoffman to fire Churchill.

The former president, looking dour through much of the deposition, said she was �concerned� as soon as she learned just days after the media had latched on to the controversy that CU Provost Phil DiStefano had decided to launch an investigation into Churchill�s past writings to see if there was any evidence of academic misconduct.

She acknowledged that the prospect of a university examining a faculty member�s scholarship as the result of a controversial statement would have a chilling effect on free speech.

�Would that be the equivalent of putting a faculty member under a microscope?� asked David Lane, Churchill�s attorney.

�Yes,� she said.

But she also said once the school had allegations of misconduct in hand, it was obligated to look into them.

The interview with Hoffman, which was recorded Feb. 23, lasted about two hours and came at the end of the first week of Churchill�s trial against the university.

The trial, being held in Denver District Court, is meant to resolve a civil suit Churchill filed against CU after it fired him in 2007 for repeatedly violating the school�s academic standards. He claims in the suit that CU really dismissed him for his essay.

In the taped deposition, Hoffman also addressed the idea that not all academic misconduct is the same and that not all transgressions rise to the level of job termination.

She said typical mistakes that might elicit a reprimand are failing to footnote someone in an academic work. Other types of infractions, like publishing someone else�s work as one�s own, are far more egregious.

She agreed with Lane that if professors could give a �straight-faced� reason and provide a sound methodology for why they wrote what they did, with no intention of providing deliberately false information, it might not be considered misconduct.

�I think that�s what academic freedom is all about � challenging the accepted view about the facts,� she said.

The day�s witnesses also featured noted civil rights scholar Derrick Bell, but his time on the stand was abbreviated due to limits the judge placed on Lane regarding what types of questions the attorney could ask the former Harvard University professor.

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