We previously discussed the controversy surrounding Trinity College Professor Johnny Williams and his posts against white people, 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 I am mentioned in the earlier post, I do not believe that Williams should have been punished for his postings as a matter of free speech and academic freedom. The College has now reached the same conclusion but the question remains whether the College will take a similar principled position for academics espousing such views about other races.
Williams wrote “I’m fed the [expletive] up with self identified ‘white’s’ daily violence directed at immigrants, Muslim, and sexual and racially oppressed people. The time is now to confront these inhuman [expletive] and end this now.” In another post he used the hashtag, “Let them f***ing die.” The professor also linked to an article by that title, which mentioned Senate Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was shot in June by a gunman targeting Republicans.
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.
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.”
Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeney told the College that the negative reports were fueled by misleading and incorrect reports of what he actually said.” However, she also says:
“Let me be clear: While I support Professor Williams’s right to express his opinions, as I have previously stated, I do not condone the hashtag he chose to use,” Berger-Sweeney said in her email to the community. “This was interpreted by some to be a call to let people die, though Professor Williams stated publicly that was not his intent. Nevertheless, the words used in that hashtag not only offend me personally, they also contradict our fundamental institutional values and run counter to our efforts to bridge divides and to promote understanding, both among members of our College community and between us and members of communities beyond our own.”
She does not however explain how these words were misconstrued. My concern is that, instead of simply saying that the words were protected speech, she attempts to draw an ambiguous line that they were misinterpreted. That might suggest that the College could punish those who they find “provocative” but reject suggestions of being misunderstood.
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.”
As I noted earlier, I am less than convinced by the subsequent spin. Williams 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.
Williams will return to teach at Trinity in January.