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Last week, the Colorado Court of Appeals struck down Ward Churchill’s bid to return to his role as a University of Colorado at Boulder professor. In the process, the court upheld a lower-court decision entitling the body that governs CU, the Board of Regents, to “quasi-judicial immunity” in its 2007 vote to fire Churchill for academic misconduct (via The Washington Times). Judge Dennis Graham wrote that the process by which regents reached their decision “shared enough characteristics with the judicial process to warrant absolute immunity from liability,” refuting Churchill’s legal argument that the university’s two-year investigation of his academic works constituted an “adverse employment action” against him.
While Churchill’s attorney, David Lane, says he will appeal the case to Colorado’s Supreme Court and even the U.S. Supreme Court, legal pundits have raised concerns about the implications of the case.
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Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors, which wanted the appeals court to find in Churchill’s favor, worries the ruling could have a “chilling” effect on freedom of speech on campuses (via Inside Higher Ed).
Meanwhile, Law Week Colorado points out that the decision could provide a road map for public employers to receive quasi-judicial immunity for their employment actions. University of Denver Sturm College of Law professor Alan Chen, an employment-law expert, notes that “judicial immunity is absolute,” and even if there are clear violations of rights, a party may have no remedy. Chen says “the Churchill decision may encourage government executives to set up judicial-like bodies to review constitutionally questionable employment decisions to protect themselves from suits in future cases.” The ruling could also pave the way for public employers to disguise retaliation against employees who exercise their freedom of speech, he adds.