Former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill went to court Tuesday in a bid to get his job back, contending that he never committed plagiarism and was instead jettisoned for likening Sept. 11 victims to Nazi bureaucrats when blaming what he called unjust U.S. policy for the terrorist attacks.
David Lane, Mr. Churchill´s attorney, argued that the university caved under pressure from the "howling mob," which he described as a nationwide conservative smear campaign aimed at destroying Mr. Churchill´s reputation.
He cited the influence of conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News Channel political commentators Sean Hannity and Bill O´Reilly, who had criticized Mr. Churchill in the years before he was fired. He also noted that then-Colorado Gov. Bill Owens publicly called on Mr. Churchill to resign.
"It is a First Amendment violation to destroy this man and disrupt his reputation," said Mr. Lane. "He's not a fraud, and he didn't plagiarize."
Denver District Court Chief Judge Larry Naves presided over opening arguments Tuesday in the wrongful-dismissal trial, which could last as long as three weeks. A jury of four men and four women was seated Monday.
Attorneys for the university argued that Mr. Churchill was fired solely on the basis of his academic misconduct. Questions about the integrity of Mr. Churchill´s writing and research had swirled for years before a university panel launched its investigation in 2005.
Lawyer Patrick O´Rourke said he would provide eight separate examples of what he said was Mr. Churchill´s research dishonesty, including inventing facts to support his conclusions and plagiarizing the work of other academics.
"Professor Churchill did things an eighth-grader knows are wrong," Mr. O´Rourke said. "You don´t copy somebody else´s work."
Mr. Churchill, 61, was fired by the University of Colorado Board of Regents in 2007 after a two-year investigation found him guilty of plagiarism, fabricating research and misrepresenting the work of others.
Mr. Churchill has accused the university of fishing for excuses to dismiss him after a national outcry over his writing. The controversy centered on his 2001 essay, "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens," in which he called victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack "little Eichmanns," referring to Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann.
Publicity surrounding the essay transformed Mr. Churchill from an obscure professor to a national symbol of radical academia. At that point, said Mr. Lane, then-University of Colorado President Hank Brown told the Board of Regents that he would find a reason to dismiss Mr. Churchill.
"[Mr. Brown said,] 'Regents, I´m giving you my assurances, I am going to investigate absolutely every single word this man has ever written, this man has ever spoken, any tape-recordings I can find about him,´" said Mr. Lane. " I am going to look at his conduct, and I am going to find you cause for dismissal.´ "
At the time, Mr. Churchill was a tenured professor of ethnic studies and former head of the University of Colorado at Boulder´s ethnic studies department. He had published extensively on topics related primarily to Indian history and was active in the American Indian Movement.
Mr. Owens and Mr. Brown, a former senator from Colorado, are expected to be called as witnesses during the trial.
"The mob took over at the University of Colorado," said Mr. Lane.
Mr. Churchill is seeking to be reinstated at the university and financially compensated for his losses.
Last week, former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers appeared at a campus rally on behalf of Mr. Churchill, calling him the victim of a "witch hunt."