There is a new controversy involving an investigation of a professor for statements made on social media. Trinity College Professor Johnny Williams has fled Connecticut after receiving death threats over his postings, including an inflammatory reference to people considered bigots and how we should “Let Them. F**king Die.” Williams teaches classes on race and racism and clearly wanted to get others to read this hateful screed.
As we have previously discussed (including the recent controversies involving an Oregon professor and a Drexel professor), there remains an uncertain line in what language is protected for teachers in their private lives. The incident also raises what some faculty have complained is a double or at least uncertain standard. We have previously discussed controversies at the University of California and Boston University, where there have been criticism of a double standard, even in the face of criminal conduct. There were also such incident at the University of London involving Bahar Mustafa as well as one involving a University of Pennsylvania professor.
As is well known on this blog, I tend to favor free speech rights in all of these cases. In my view, this view does seem to be satire — bad satire but satire all the same. However, the standard remains entirely uncertain for academics as to whether their conduct or comments outside of school will be the basis for discipline. As a private institution, Drexel falls under a different standard than schools like the University of Oregon. Yet, free speech demands a bright line to avoid a chilling effect on those who want to challenge the status quo or popular views. Academics often write to challenge students and the public in exploring the edges of norms and beliefs.
As you might expect, I view this latest controversy through the same free speech lens. The reaction to the social media posting in my view was overblown, including closing the entire campus by President Joanne Berger-Sweeney.
Williams shared a Medium article by an author who goes by the name of “Son of Baldwin.” The article attacks House Majority Whip Steve Scalise — who was shot during a congressional baseball practice and makes reference to his being saved by Capitol Police officers who are black. The article, which is remarkably shallow and hateful asked “What does it mean, in general, when victims of bigotry save the lives of bigots?” It adds “Saving the life of those that would kill you is the opposite of virtuous,” it added. “Let. Them. F—ing. Die.”
Williams appears to find such racist and hateful writings worth sharing, which he did on Facebook and Twitter. He used the hashtag #LetThemFuckingDie. Trinity then went into lockdown to deal with a potential “immediate threat.”
Williams insisted in an interview with the Hartford Courant that his posts were meant to reference a fatal police shooting in Seattle and not the attack on Scalise. He insisted “I’m calling for the death of a system, white supremacy, not the death of white people.”
Williams will have to forgive me for not being particularly interested in his explanation. He posted a hateful and frankly juvenile writing that used racial discrimination as an excuse to engage in racist and hateful writings. The fact that Williams views this type of low-grade discourse to be intellectually stimulating is disappointing. I am not familiar with his own writings but his taste in the writings of others is hardly inspiring. I view the writing as reprehensible and the posting as reprehensible but that is not relevant. Williams has free speech and academic freedom protections. This article was clearly posted as a provocative writing that Williams found important to share.
Now the school is going to investigate him and the posting. Berger-Sweeney wrote that “The Dean of the Faculty will review this matter and advise me on whether college procedures or policies were broken.” She added “I told Professor Williams that in my opinion his use of the hashtag was reprehensible and, at the very least, in poor judgment. No matter its intent, it goes against our fundamental values as an institution, and I believe its effect is to close minds rather than open them.”
Williams has apologized.
The issue does raise the question of when it is appropriate to punish people for expressing controversial or reprehensible thoughts. Recently, the Nebraska Democratic party fired one of its top officials after he said that he was glad that Scalise was shot. The comments embarrassed the party, which has an interest in controlling its message for the public. This is different. Williams is a professor who was clearly speaking for himself on a matter of both political and academic interest.
Once again, I do not believe that Williams should be disciplined for engaging in free speech outside of his class, particularly when the writing falls within scope of his academic writings. My greatest concern however is the double standard and whether a professor who posted such statements about minorities or women would receive the same treatment. Free speech and academic freedom requires bright line rules and protections. The solution to bad speech — like that of Williams — is more speech. As to whether his writings justify a teaching position at a leading academic institution — that decision should not rest with public opinion but the opinion of his colleagues.