Trinity College: Professor didn’t violate policies with social media controversy, mutual ageement to not return for fall

Johnny Williams

HARTFORD — Trinity College is saying Friday that Professor Johnny Williams did not violate any policies with his social media controversy back in June, but through a mutual agreement with the college, will not return to for the fall semester.

The controversy started after a website called “Campus Reform” posted the Facebook comments in question, coming from Williams. That lead to numerous threats that were made to Trinity and to Williams. 

In one post he 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 EXPLETIVES and end this now.

In another post about white supremacists, he used the hashtag “Let them ________  die.”

Williams, who has been teaching at the college for more than 20 years, also posted a controversial article with the headline “Let them ______ die.”

President Joanne Berger-Sweeney said in a statement:

By mutual agreement, Professor Williams will be on leave throughout the fall semester to provide some time and distance from this recent controversy and to allow him to continue his scholarship on race, racism, and academic freedom. The threats of violence against him, his family, and our campus have shaken us all, and we want to do what we can to ensure the continued well-being of our community. Professor Williams will return to his teaching duties on campus in January 2018.

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. 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.

The ACLU said in a statement regarding the July 14th decision:

“We commend Trinity College’s decision to uphold free speech in the face of controversy. We understand the deep concerns expressed over Professor Williams’s Facebook posts. In the face of today’s polarized climate, it is vital for universities to maintain equitable learning environments for all students, while upholding the free expression of students and faculty alike.

This incident was fundamentally about a professor’s ability to freely express his political views on his personal social media page. It is clear that Professor Williams was not attempting to incite violence or making individualized threats, and it does not appear that he was discriminating against students in the classroom. The response to his posts has also shown that many people have conflated Professor Williams’s own words with those included in a blog post to which he linked.

While there may be better ways to draw attention to the very real problem of white supremacy, Professor Williams’s choices to use an offensive hashtag, link to a controversial article, and express his political views on his personal Facebook page were protected free speech.

Colleges and universities do not have to be passive in the face of controversial speech. We are heartened that Trinity College has noted its intent to continue broader campus conversations about free speech and the racial and political divides that split our nation.”

Williams released following statement:

“Trinity College has correctly recognized that Professor 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,” and that Professor Williams did not violate any laws or policies of the College. Moreover, Trinity properly concluded that Professor Williams’s actual statements were distorted and misconstrued, and statements were incorrectly attributed to him without evidence.

Although the Dean’s Review concluded that there are no grounds to institute disciplinary action against Professor Williams, Trinity College has still not sufficiently acknowledged that it improperly disciplined Professor Williams by placing him on an involuntary leave of absence and publicly reprimandinghim. It is also disappointing that the statements issued today by the College not only fail to apologize for the actions taken against Professor Williams, but that the President continues to publicly castigate Professor Williams for statements that she and the College recognize are protected by the First Amendment and principles of academic freedom and are not a proper basis for disciplinary action.

Professor Williams remains grateful for the support he has received from his friends and colleagues at Trinity, and beyond, and he looks forward to continuing his scholarship and teaching regarding these important issues as a member of Trinity’s faculty.”

You can read the entire statement by Trinity here.