Denver—Old hippies with gray-streaked ponytails, sporting their best Indian radical-chic finery, arrived early and waited in a marble hallway of the District Court here, chowing down on breakfast burritos from the cafeteria. They came to support Ward Churchill—you could tell by their "I Am Ward Churchill" buttons—in his wrongful-termination lawsuit against his former employer, the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Already a big man in his own field of Native American studies, Mr. Churchill achieved national notoriety in 2005 when an essay he wrote on the afternoon of 9/11 resurfaced. He had described some of the people who died in the World Trade Center that day as "little Eichmanns," a reference to a technocrat who facilitated the killing of Jews in Nazi Germany. The essay's gist was that, on that day, America got what was coming to it.
An uproar inevitably followed. But something else followed as well: a close look at Mr. Churchill's academic career. Charges of shoddy scholarship, false credentials and even plagiarism surfaced. Eventually, the University of Colorado let Mr. Churchill go. His lawsuit is the final chapter in this drama.
And so the aging activists gathered here. Mr. Churchill walked among them in the hallway outside the courtroom on Wednesday, eating a burrito. He could be overheard chatting about traffic and politely inquiring about the well-being of one of his more prominent supporters, attorney Lynne Stewart, currently out on bail after being convicted in 2005 of passing messages between her client, Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, and a terrorist organization.
Mr. Churchill's family was here, too. On Wednesday, Natsu Taylor Saito, Mr. Churchill's wife and an ethnic-studies professor at the University of Colorado, was called to the stand. As the storm broke over Mr. Churchill's essay, titled "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens," the department (in which Mr. Churchill also taught) received many threats, she said, and no university support. She also spoke of her family's exhaustion and despair at being left alone to defend themselves.
Whether the university offered the ethnic-studies department "support" or not, it is certainly true that the administration did not, at first, rush to defend Mr. Churchill's First Amendment rights. At the time, the Colorado legislature had called the essay "evil and inflammatory"; Gov. Bill Owens had denounced it, too. At first, the Regents of the University of Colorado issued an apology and promised an inquiry into Mr. Churchill's actions. Eventually, it determined that Mr. Churchill had every right to say what he had said.
By this time, however, Mr. Churchill's offensive essay had goaded angry readers to examine his larger role as a scholar and activist. A few raised legitimate concerns about the quality of his scholarship. To take three examples: Mr. Churchill has long contended that Capt. John Smith or his agents, in the 17th century—and later the U.S. military—handed out smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans with genocidal intent, but he supported his claim by citing only the Native American "oral tradition" of the Wampanoag and Mandan tribes. Mr. Churchill also plagiarized the work of a Canadian professor. And finally, he ghostwrote an essay and then cited it in his own work as third-party confirmation of his views. As a succession of people testified this week, once such complaints had been submitted to the university in writing, administrators were duty-bound to investigate. They appointed a committee to do so, and it found enough truth in the charges to dismiss Mr. Churchill in 2007. He filed suit the next day.
Without the controversy over the 9/11 essay, would Mr. Churchill have been fired over otherwise unrelated charges of academic sloppiness and dishonesty? Mr. Churchill and his lawyers say "no" and demand that he be reinstated. In the second sentence of its report, the university's investigative committee admits that there is no way to separate the original furor from the subsequent investigation, noting "its concern regarding the timing and, perhaps, the motives for the University's decision to initiate these charges at this time." Still, it asserts that Mr. Churchill's scholarly malfeasance was real and serious.
From the stand, Todd Gleason, the dean of Arts and Sciences, noted that no academic inquiry originates from strictly neutral ground: "It's only common sense to expect that the source of most complaints against a faculty member is going to be someone who nine times out of 10 has a personal or professional disagreement with the author." Pure motives can be in short supply, even in the supposedly collegial world of higher education. And which is worse: To check out some footnotes after an inflammatory essay brings shame on your profession, or to submit a complaint about a colleague's work after he snubs you in the faculty lounge?
As the specifics of his academic fraud started to circulate in 2006, Mr. Churchill began to lose support among his colleagues. Fewer and fewer signatures appeared on each new petition circulated on his behalf. Mr. Churchill has periodically expressed surprise that his friends in the ivory tower sided against him. And perhaps he is right to wonder why they were suddenly so preoccupied with rigorous, bureaucratic adherence to university policy, after he had enjoyed so many years of promotions and awards in the ethnic-studies department without regard for the usual credentialing and publication requirements.
Mr. Churchill, for his part, remains unrepentant. On the stand, he repeated his position that the attack on the World Trade Center was "perfectly predictable," saying: "When you bring your skills to bear for profit, you are the moral equivalent of Adolf Eichmann." And he refused to acknowledge that the objections to his scholarship had merit, explaining that history written by white men is full of lies and that he is simply trying to correct for that historical imbalance. The "technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire," dead in the World Trade Center, were legitimate targets, Mr. Churchill insisted, while he is an innocent victim. Perhaps, instead, it was simply that Mr. Churchill's own chickens finally came home to roost.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is associate editor at Reason magazine. This article first appeared in The Wall Street Journal on March 27, 2009.