The Colorado Court of Appeals released its decision in Ward Churchill’s appeal in his First Amendment retaliation case against the University of Colorado last Wednesday (which must be one of the slowest news days of the year). A few years ago, the University terminated Churchill, a tenured professor in the University’s Department of Ethnic Studies, after concluding that he had engaged in several incidents of research misconduct, including evidentiary fabrication, plagiarism, and falsification. These conclusions were reached after several years of internal investigative and adjudicative proceedings to examine allegations of Churchill’s research misconduct. As most everyone is aware, the University did not launch its investigation until after a public outcry arose from controversial statements in an essay that Churchill wrote comparing the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to “little Eichmanns,” in reference to the notorious Nazi war criminal. The perhaps forgotten larger point of the essay was an argument that the 9/11 attacks were provoked by American foreign policy actions.
Churchill sued the University, arguing that both the investigation and the termination violated his free speech rights under the First Amendment because they were undertaken in retaliation for his protected expression on matters of public concern. At trial, after the evidence was submitted, the University moved for a directed verdict on the claim that the investigation (as distinguished from the termination) was an adverse employment action that constituted unconstitutional retaliation, and the trial court agreed. The termination claim went to the jury, which held for Churchill, concluding that the University’s decision to fire him was substantially motivated by his protected speech. The jury also rejected the University’s defense under Mt. Healthy City Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274 (1977), finding that the University had not shown by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have fired Churchill for reasons other than his speech. The jury then awarded Churchill only $1 for his economic loss.
In an unusual move, the parties had agreed prior to trial that the University would waive its sovereign immunity defense in exchange for Churchill’s agreement that the University could assert any defenses that its officials or employees could have raised and that those defenses could be presented after the jury’s verdict. Pursuant to this agreement, the University submitted post-verdict motions asserting that despite the jury’s ruling, the University was entitled to quasi-judicial immunity for its officials’ actions. Churchill filed a motion asking that he be reinstated to his faculty position based on the jury’s finding of unconstitutional termination. The trial court ruled in favor of the University on both claims and entered judgment for the defense, from which Churchill appealed. Read More