It's impossible to feel sympathy for a character as vicious and stupid as Ward Churchill, so I won't bother trying. The University of Colorado professor was invited to speak at Hamilton College in upstate New York--until someone found an article he had written claiming that the people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks richly deserved their fate.Churchill compared the victims to Adolph Eichmann, one of the Nazis chiefly responsible for the Holocaust, because their work supposedly helped finance America's alleged atrocities abroad. They failed to grasp their complicity, he insisted, "because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions," heedless of "the starved and rotting flesh of infants."Of course, that lunatic description hardly applies to the flight attendants, firefighters, busboys, secretaries and janitors killed in the terrorist attacks. And if you can argue that stockbrokers contribute to and profit from America's alleged crimes abroad, you could say the same thing about university professors. Does that mean they deserve killing?The college president, in the face of an avalanche of complaints, insisted on honoring the invitation but gave up when threats of violence became too great. Those who issued the invitation say they didn't know about the article when they invited Churchill, who teaches ethnic studies, to talk about American Indian issues. In light of the new information, the school can hardly be faulted for deciding not to furnish a forum for someone with such vile opinions. A private institution like Hamilton has every right to choose not to inconvenience itself for the sake of someone whose views it finds contemptible.But it's worth remembering that the 1st Amendment's free speech guarantee is not about protecting the expression of popular ideas--it's about permitting unpopular, infuriating and even thoroughly despicable ideas. Those, after all, are the ones most likely to be suppressed if the majority had its way.That point apparently escapes some politicians back in Colorado, who were not happy to find the state has been paying the salary of someone with these views. Gov. Bill Owens has urged the University of Colorado to fire Churchill, who has already given up his job as chair of the ethnic studies department. State Sen. Tom Wiens objected to having "someone on our state payroll who believes" what Churchill does.But repellent though Churchill's views are, they should not be grounds for firing a university professor. The spirit of academic freedom requires ample space for scholars to entertain and advocate controversial and even outrageous ideas. Unless the professor has failed to fulfill his obligations as a teacher and scholar, he should be retained in his post, regardless of his personal opinions. The state doesn't have to operate a university, but if it does, it can't punish or reward academics according to the acceptability of their political views.That is not easy to stomach when the views are as vile as these. But as state Sen. Peter Groff said, "Democracy and freedom are hard work."