Speaking freely at CU

March 4, 2009

Former Rocky Mountain News columnist Bill Johnson has an article today about the free speech cage demonstration. He doesn’t seem to think much of it, but as usual, he gets the bigger picture. From the Denver Post.

My gut tells me his “freedom cage” is little more than advertising for the Thursday rally. I saw no “university goons” beating the speech out of kids or hooking the cage to the back of their vehicles and dragging it off.

And, for heaven’s sake, the university is allowing Ward Churchill, with whom it is in litigation, and so-called “domestic terrorist” Ayers to bad-mouth it center stage on the campus.

“But it fired professor Churchill for his speech,” Smith, a political science-ethnic studies graduate, explained. The cage, he said, is a symbol to students not around when Churchill was fired in 2007.

“In firing him,” he said, “they sent a message to all critical thinkers, to either support the status quo or become the next target.”

On that level, I get it. I have written before that I believe the furor over Churchill’s “On the Justice of Roosting Chickens” essay, even with its “little Eichmanns” reference, was an overwrought, knee-jerk, post- 9/11 super-patriotism reaction to something I found fairly benign.

Anytime a tenured university professor is run off for views deemed controversial by some, I think it ought to deeply chill each of us. His lawsuit against the university seeking his job back goes to trial in Denver on Monday, and should tell us more clearly where the classroom free-speech lines lay.

Smith says he got the idea for the cage from the Republican and Democratic national conventions, which set aside far-off patches of ground for demonstrators to let off steam.

He is blowing his own argument, I told him. He’d set up outside the University Memorial Center, the heart of campus.

“This is an extremely important case (Churchill’s) because it will define academic freedom for years to come,” Sam McFadyen, 21, a philosophy major, said after his turn in the cage.

“It’d be great if more people were listening to the speakers,” he said, pointing to the students sitting around talking on their cellphones.

“But having the right to do this is something we have to defend at all costs.”

I sidled up to Kendall Flanagan, 19, a junior Spanish and Portuguese major from Louisville, the only non-participant who seemed to be listening.

“I’ve heard of the (Churchill) case, but I didn’t really know what it was really about until now.”

Will she go hear the former professor speak Thursday?

“Until this moment,” Flanagan said, “I hadn’t planned to, but I probably will. All of it sounds so interesting.”


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