Updated: May 31, 2011 at 12:00 am
DENVER — The Colorado Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to hear an appeal from former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who is trying to get his job back after he was fired in 2007 following a public outcry over an essay in which he compared some Sept. 11 victims to a Nazi.
The court said it will consider whether it's a violation of the First Amendment for a public university's investigation into a tenured professor's work to result in termination. The court also will consider whether the university's regents are entitled to immunity from the lawsuit, and if Churchill can get his job back.
University officials determined his comments were protected by the First Amendment, but they launched an investigation into separate allegations that Churchill falsified research and plagiarized in other works. He was fired on research misconduct allegations in 2007.
"Every judge who has heard this case has found the university acted appropriately in terminating Mr. Churchill," university spokesman Ken McConnellogue said. "We believe the Colorado Supreme Court will do the same."
Churchill's attorney, David Lane, said the court's decision to hear the appeal is extremely important for the principles of academic freedom and tenure.
"If the lower court opinions stand, when a tenured professor is fired in retaliation for free speech, in violation of the First Amendment, a professor has no remedy," Lane said.
Churchill, a former tenured professor of ethnic studies, touched off a firestorm with his essay, which included a description of some victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as "little Eichmanns." Adolf Eichmann was the Nazi leader who helped orchestrate the Holocaust.
A jury in 2009 found the school unlawfully fired Churchill but awarded him only $1 in damages. However, a Denver District judge set aside the verdict and said university regents, who are elected, are a "quasi-judicial" panel with immunity from the lawsuit.
The Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the ruling, but Lane disagreed.
"The regents violated his First Amendment rights. They should not be given immunity for that," Lane said. "When you launch a bogus investigation against someone because you don't like their free speech, you should be on the hook for that."
Churchill has been speaking around the country and writing but wants to work at the university again, Lane said.