Honolulu Lite
Charles Memminger

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Only chosen get free trip
for free speech

Why doesn't everyone just get off University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill's back? If he wants to say he's an American Indian, it's his free-speech right to say so, isn't it? Even if the American Indian Movement Grand Governing Council doesn't believe him. That group, which represents the American Indian Movement, calls him an "Indian fraud" who has been "masquerading as an Indian for years behind his dark glasses and beaded headband." You'd think those folks would recognize an Indian when they saw one.

When Churchill arrived on his free trip to Hawaii last week to speak at the University of Hawaii, he didn't want to talk about whether he was an Indian. Even though back at home, the Rocky Mountain News said it was unable to turn up records of any Indian ancestors, and columnist Paul Campos charged Churchill "used his supposed Indian heritage to bully his way into academia." What a bunch of troublemakers.

What Ward Churchill wanted to talk about at UH was "free speech," his right to say whatever nonsense he wants without anyone questioning him about it. In his case, he thinks America is an evil place and that bureaucrats and investment bankers -- like the kind who had offices in the World Trade Center -- are "little Eichmanns" who deserve to be killed by terrorists. And he thinks Hawaii has too many tourists and that they should have their kneecaps broken.

When I first heard Ward Churchill's particular brand of nonsense, I wasn't shocked. In fact, I told my wife, hey, we could hear the same nonsense from our own university professors. In fact, Hawaiian-studies professor Haunani Kay Trask is no slouch at saying things that irritate people. She's the go-to person when out-of-town journalists come to Honolulu looking for a tenured academic to say she "hates haoles" or provide some other outrageous anti-American sound bite.

Which is fine. It's not only free speech, but I believe it's her job to provide those sound bites. Haunani is whatever the opposite of the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau is. Not surprisingly, she's a buddy of Churchill's and was one of the people who brought him to speak here in the name of academic freedom and, let's not forget, free speech.

Trask apparently isn't bothered by the clouds hanging over Churchill's claim to Indianship. You have to wonder, though, if she'd be keen on having someone with equally hazy credentials claiming to be native Hawaiian. And if that person wanted to come to UH to talk about what a great idea the Iraq war is, would she pay travel fare and lei fees so he could avail himself of UH's dedication to free speech? Probably not. Because there's free speech and there's free speech.

LET'S ALL remember how the Hawaii chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that sponsored Churchill's visit, didn't even want U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to participate in an ACLU debate in Hawaii 2001. Members of the ACLU board, exercising their rights to free speech, showered Thomas with such charming verbal bouquets as "Uncle Tom" and "the Antichrist" before finally, and I might add, agonizingly, agreeing to let Thomas speak. And in the irony department, the subject of the debate Thomas was to take part in was -- you got it -- the First Amendment, i.e., free speech.

I wonder if Trask et al. would have given Ward Churchill a free trip to Hawaii if the title of his talk was "Karl Rove: What a Sweet Guy!"

I know something about free speech because I practice it daily in print. And I'll tell you something, free speech is a great thing until you say something somebody doesn't like.

I recently wrote a couple of columns daring to say that the Kaneohe Marines killed in Iraq did not die in vain. For that, I am being savaged on a Democratic Party Web site (democraticunderground.com) as a "fascist pile of garbage" and an "ignorant s--head." Other anti-war types called for me to leave the country because of my column, and one suggested I be fired from my job. (I think they hate me because I'm part German, despite what the American German Grand Governing Council says.)

"We at the university and all others concerned for civil liberties, absolutely and categorically, must defend Ward Churchill's constitutional right to speak his mind as a public intellectual," Trask said. It's a great line, as long as instead of "Ward Churchill," you can insert the name of someone other than academic tenured anarchists (allegedly) masquerading as Indians.

For the record, I'm available to speak at UH on the subject of free speech, but I don't think I'll be waiting by the phone.

Charles Memminger, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' 2004 First Place Award winner for humor writing, appears Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. E-mail cmemminger@starbulletin.com

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