Rummaging through Yale University’s library shelves in early 2001 to prepare a talk on news media and genocide, I came across a study of nineteenth-century Colorado newspapers by Ward Churchill. His research steered me to a chilling 1891 editorial in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer by L. Frank Baum, future author of The Wizard of Oz, calling for “the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians.”

In the small fields of Native American history and genocide studies, Churchill is a figure respected enough to have contributed to the authoritative Encyclopedia of Genocide and divisive enough that fellow scholars debate his conclusions. It is no discredit to Churchill’s scholarship to say that his broader political writing–including the now notorious 9/11 essay that became On the Justice of Roosting Chickens–is uniformly hackneyed and filled with adolescent delight in provocation for its own sake (like his grotesque moral hairsplitting in hinting that a stockbroker is a more legitimate target for Al Qaeda than a janitor).

The truth is, though, that neither Churchill’s historical studies nor his sectarian harangues have much to do with why his name now roils two college campuses 1,700 miles apart. What happened reveals a basic dynamic behind campus free-speech fights. Churchill, who teaches at the University of Colorado, was invited to speak on Native American issues at Hamilton College in upstate New York. His host was Hamilton’s Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society and Culture, which last fall had invited Susan Rosenberg, the Weather Underground conspirator pardoned by Bill Clinton, to teach a one-month writing course, until protest threats by police led her to withdraw. Primed by the Rosenberg spat, a Hamilton political scientist critical of Kirkland’s penchant for in-your-face guests Googled the spring speaker list. Up came Churchill’s noxious “little Eichmanns” quote.

The Hamilton student newspaper broke the story on January 21. At the urging of college president Joan Hinde Stewart, Kirkland’s director, Nancy Rabinowitz, changed Churchill’s forum to a panel on the limits of dissent. Stewart said she would defend Churchill’s right to speak but promised to “review” the Kirkland Project itself. On January 26 the story made the Syracuse Post-Standard and by mid-morning was blasted across the conservative website–soon followed by a reader’s suggestion that Churchill get “a fire ax to the back of the skull.” By January 28 it was on the Wall Street Journal editorial page; that night, The O’Reilly Factor ran with it, featuring a justifiably distressed Hamilton student whose father had died at the World Trade Center. The host called on viewers to e-mail the college and on alumni to withhold contributions. Over the next week Bill O’Reilly devoted daily segments to Hamilton College and Churchill. Factual accuracy went out the window. On February 1, O’Reilly guest David Horowitz painted Hamilton as a repressively left-wing institution, declaring, “The students there can only identify one conservative on the faculty.” Students, he told O’Reilly, had twice invited him to speak at Hamilton. “It’s not like the faculty brought me up there.” In fact, according to Horowitz’s own blog, he visited Hamilton in 2002 at the invitation of historian Maurice Isserman; “Hamilton College scores better than your average school in terms of diversity of faculty views,” Horowitz wrote at the time. By February 5, after a raft of threats to the college and to Churchill himself, Stewart canceled Churchill’s talk. The University of Colorado, pressured by Governor Bill Owens, secured Churchill’s resignation as chair of its ethnic studies program.

In just a few days, a parochial argument at a small college turned into a national banquet for right-wingers hungry for post-Kerry culture enemies. Hamilton College stepped into a well-funded national campaign to rein in outspoken faculty: “professors who hate America,” as Horowitz and Daniel Pipes call distinguished scholars like historians Eric Foner of Columbia and Glenda Gilmore of Yale because they criticize the Iraq War. Invective flies out on the unprecedented hysteria transmission-belt of Internet and right-wing broadcasters. Throw a professor’s antiwar speech into the hopper and within hours you have menace to donations, tub-thumping by politicians and a stream of what Gilmore experienced last year: “death threats and rape wishes.”

What’s worrisome is not that these professors will back down but that the universities will–like Hamilton–become fearful of granting a platform to controversial speakers. O’Reilly & Co. smelled red meat because of Hamilton’s obvious uncertainty: The school’s willingness to yield in the face of attack (let’s review the program and change the topic) told them to keep pushing.

Is Ward Churchill persecuted when reasonable people–like that still-grieving Hamilton student–take offense at his self-marginalizing writing? No. But what happened at Hamilton is that a campus debate over a provocative speaker was hijacked and exploited. Now at the University of Colorado, this tenured faculty member’s writings are being subjected to a line-by-line review for evidence of academic malfeasance solely as a punishment for his political statements. Thanks to O’Reilly and his cohorts, Churchill gained unearned fame. But what is happening in Boulder should frighten all scholars regardless of politics.