An oft-repeated phrase in the wake of 9/11 is that such and such a comment is always OK because it represents the expression of the right to free speech. The problem with free speech that most people miss is the “being responsible for what you say” part. Now this doesn’t mean that sanction should be made against you just because you say something that I don’t like. It does mean, however, that if your words cause someone or some institution actual harm, rather than perceived harm, then it’s perfectly appropriate for you to be held accountable.
A perfect example of this is the recent controversy over University of Colorado professor Dr. Ward Churchill’s comments characterizing the people who died in the World Trade Center as “little Eichmans” and that their death was not the death of innocents, but that of the “technocrats of empire” who in pursuing their careers in the capitalist system were akin to the Nazi Adolf Eichman, who facilitated the apparatus that enabled the Holocaust. These comments eventually became part of the book On the Justice of Roosting Chickens and express what is at its core a “you reap what you sew” argument. Now, I’ve heard this basic argument before, although not in such inflammatory terms. In fact, Harry Browne, the Libertarian candidate for president in 1996 and 2000, expressed something very close to this “we deserved it” argument less than a week after the attack. Perhaps this explains the vast numbers of Libertarian elected officials across the country. Oh, wait a minute…there aren’t any. Ah, but I digress.
Many people have called for Churchill to be fired for these comments. His defenders on the other hand think that what he says is his right and that if he is in fact fired it’s a violation of his free-speech rights. I think this claim that his right to free speech outweighs any harm he may have cause with his words is just utter nonsense. Many of you were screaming for the heads of Advocates for Conservative Thought just because they held that symbolic affirmative action bake sale last year that caused no harm at all except that many of you didn’t like it. Affirmative action was never threatened and neither were UM’s policies related to affirmative action. And yet some of you wanted sanctions made against ACT on the grounds that you were “offended.” Like anybody gives a crap that you were offended.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Churchill should be fired for saying what he said. It’s his opinion and he’s entitled to it. If what he did causes the University of Colorado to lose money and/or enrollments, then the administration has every right to show him the door.
Scott Wacholtz can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.