Ward Off (and On)

Ward Churchill finally makes it to Eastern Washington University

Despite a canceled invitation and a media fatwa, a landslide of angry e-mails and death threats, even a failed restraining order -- Ward Churchill finally made it to Eastern Washington University on Tuesday.

The incendiary University of Colorado professor, who drew heat in January for an essay he wrote on the 9/11 terrorist attacks, spoke for a little over an hour in a closed-door session with students from the university's race and ethnic studies program. Shortly after noon, he appeared in front of a crowd of around 300 in an outdoor common area. Atop the nearby Pence Union Building, two uniformed police officers stood guard, while pairs of officers from local, county and state departments quietly patrolled the perimeter.

Churchill drew the last few puffs from a stubby cigarette before climbing the dais to lecture for about 20 minutes on why he should have been allowed to speak at Eastern in the first place. "I'm proud to be here," he said, to fervent applause. "Even if I had nothing to say, it's your right to find out."

Eastern has been at the center of controversy since early February, when university president Stephen Jordan announced that the school was canceling an April 5 lecture, scheduled by the Native American Student Association (NASA), in which Churchill was to be paid $3,000 to speak on Native American affairs in a multi-purpose room of the student union building. The president's office insisted that it made its decision on the basis of security concerns. (Heavy security needs had scuttled a Churchill appearance at Hamilton College in New York a month before.) But the cancellation drew fire from critics, who accused the school of suppressing unpopular free speech.

Churchill railed on that theme during his public lecture Tuesday, accusing the president of kowtowing to university donors upset by the school's choice to invite Churchill and calling the decision a "dereliction of duty." He said the president's actions were "illegal" and assured students that, "You're going to be rid of that old boy Jordan pretty soon."

On Monday, Churchill and a handful of others filed a restraining order in Spokane's federal court in a last-minute attempt to force the university to make good on its initial offer to pay Churchill and allow him to speak in a school-sanctioned, indoor venue. But a judge denied the request, stating that the appearance had been canceled for more than two months, and that scratching together a new security plan in less than one day would be a "Herculean task."

David Rey, a spokesman for the president's office, says Churchill's ultimate appearance was "kind of a compromise." Though the "disinvitation" still stood, Rey says, the university's administration doesn't oversee classroom visitors, and anyone is allowed to speak on the public campus "to whoever will listen to them."

Most listening to Churchill Tuesday seemed either supportive or disinterested. Although representatives from the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane wandered through the scattered crowd in bright orange vests, happy to help defuse potential violent confrontation -- "Kindness is disarming," said PJALS volunteer Teryl MacDonald -- none could be found. As Churchill finished his speech and was whisked away, one woman booed loudly and yelled, "We love the Indians, but we don't like him." The local media swarmed on her.

Charlie Joseph, an EWU senior and NASA member, said that Churchill's classroom lecture was "right on." He added, "It took a lot of time and effort to get him here. It's inspiring, at least to our Native community here, and to the general public."

Liam Hughes, a student writer for the school's newspaper, thought otherwise. "I don't know whether to bite my lip," he said, "or transfer to another university in protest."

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About The Author

Joel Smith

Joel Smith is the media editor for The Inlander. In that position, he manages and directs Inlander.com and edits all copy for the website, the newspaper and all other special publications. A former staff writer, he has reported on local and state politics, the environment, urban development and culture, Spokane's...