Professor’s Facebook posts prompt investigation
Professor Johnny Williams was investigated by Trinity College administrators for controversial posts on his personal Facebook account. Campus Reform turned Williams’ posts into a widely publicized controversy causing the college administration to close the campus for a day and place Williams on involuntary paid leave. An investigation by the dean of faculty eventually found Williams innocent of any wrongdoing, although the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) remains concerned about Trinity’s handling of the situation.
Johnny Eric Williams is an associate professor of sociology whose scholarship focuses on race and racism. Controversial remarks that Williams made on Facebook prompted a formal review of his conduct by the college administration. Although college officials eventually found that Williams had not violated any official policies, he will remain on voluntary paid leave until January 2018.
Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney defended Williams’ academic freedom, although she criticized his use of inflammatory language.
On June 18, 2017, Professor Johnny Williams posted on his personal Facebook account about racism in America. According to a Trinity College dean’s review of the incident, Williams shared a Medium article titled “Let Them Fucking Die,” which referenced the shooting of Republican Congressman Steve Scalise at a congressional baseball team practice in Alexandria, VA. The article advocated that “bigots,” when in distress, should not receive any protection or assistance from minorities. In one post, Williams wrote, “It is past time for the racially oppressed to do what people who believe themselves to be ‘white’ will not do, put end [sic] to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system. #LetThemFuckingDie.” Later, he posted, “I’m fed the fuck 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 assholes and end this now.”
Campus Reform, a conservative online publication, drew national attention to Williams’ posts. An article on Campus Reform said Williams’ writing “appeared to endorse the idea that first responders to last week’s congressional shooting should have let victims ‘fucking die’ because they are white.”
Williams subsequently posted on Facebook, “I regret that the hashtag that I quoted from the title of an article was misinterpreted and mis-perceived as inciting violence and calling for the death of ‘white’ people… I never intended to invite or incite violence. My only aim was to bring awareness to white supremacy and to inspire others to address these kinds of injustices.”
Both Williams and the Trinity College campus subsequently received threats of violence, prompting the campus to shut down for a day and Williams to leave the state of Connecticut. Williams was placed on involuntary paid leave, and Trinity’s administration began a review of the incident, according to Inside Higher Ed. The investigation eventually found that Williams had not violated any of Trinity College’s policies. A review by the dean of the faculty and vice-president for academic affairs found that Williams’ online postings “constitute ‘extramural utterances’ that are protected exercises of academic freedom under Trinity College policy.” Moreover, the review found that Williams’ “statement did not advocate racial violence or discrimination against white people generally, but rather focused on people the Professor identified as having committed ‘daily violence directed at immigrants, Muslim and sexual and racially oppressed people.’” Despite exonerating Williams of any allegations of misconduct, the review found that “these events necessitate a wider conversation about academic freedom and the role of professional restraint and judgement in an era of social media and political fracturing.”
Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney released a statement affirming the dean’s review. Berger-Sweeney expressed support for the principle of academic freedom, saying the concept stems from “the very founding principle of democratic governance.” However, she criticized Williams’ language, writing, “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…”
Berger-Sweeney’s statement revealed that Williams would remain on paid leave until January 2018, in order to provide “some time and distance from this recent controversy and to allow him to continue his scholarship on race, racism, and academic freedom.” AAUP approved of the dean’s review. However, the association had previously criticized the involuntary paid leave that the administration had imposed on Williams, calling it “entirely at odds with normative-standards of academic due process.” The executive committee of the Trinity College AAUP chapter released a statement that criticized the administration for failing to defend Williams as he received threats of violence. “The administration’s default response was to lend credence to a politically motivated attack specifically designed to stifle critical engagement with issues of race. The other choice would have been to strongly support Professor Williams in the face of such attacks,” the statement read.
Williams’ private attorney, Todd Steigman, similarly criticized the administration for failing to “sufficiently acknowledge that it improperly disciplined Williams by placing him on an involuntary leave of absence and publicly reprimanding him,” in the initial aftermath of Williams’ posting, according to Inside Higher Ed (IHE). Steigman also alleges that the administration has continued to “publicly castigate” Williams, despite acknowledging that his posts were a form of protected speech.
This concern is echoed among other faculty members at Trinity, many of whom have come to Williams’ defense throughout the controversy. “The president in her statement continues to make the suggestion that Professor Williams did something wrong,” a professor of international studies told the Hartford Courant.
Williams received overwhelming support from faculty members, according to a statement by the Trinity AAUP chapter. A “petition in support of Professor Williams gathered over 2300 signatures in four days. An open letter of support from the Trinity community received over 650 signatures in two days,” the statement reported.
The national AAUP hailed the announcement that Williams was cleared of any wrongdoing as a “victory for academic freedom.” Steigman also praised the administration’s finding that Williams’ speech was protected by academic freedom. “Williams’s statements constitute ‘political speech in a public forum on issues of current social concern, and therefore lie at the very heart of the First Amendment and principles of academic freedom,’” he told IHE.
Review by Administration Finds Professor Innocent of Any Wrongdoing
A review conducted by the dean of faculty concluded that Williams had not violated any of Trinity College’s policies. The review also called for a campus conversation about academic freedom in the era of social media.
AAUP Claims the Administration Mishandled Professor’s Case
AAUP praised the review conducted by the dean of faculty, calling the determination that Williams had not violated any school policies a “victory for academic freedom.” However, AAUP remains concerned about the involuntary paid leave that was imposed on Williams in the initial aftermath of his comments, as well as the criticism that Trinity’s president has levied towards Williams in her public statements.
Prepared by Will Haskell ‘18
August 22, 2017