BY HANK REICHMAN
Just days after Professor Dana Cloud of Syracuse University became the object of an organized campaign of right-wing online harassment for a Twitter post, Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, closed its doors today “until further notice” in response to threats made after a professor’s Facebook post attracted attention in right-wing media.
“Given the threats to campus and upon consultation with the President’s Cabinet, the decision has been made to close the college until further notice,” Trinity stated in an email message. “All employees and guests are to leave campus for the day and stay tuned for updates.”
Associate Professor of Sociology Johnny Eric Williams said the campus was closed because of a bomb threat made in reaction to media misinterpreting his Facebook posts made three days ago. Kathryn Andrews, a Trinity spokesperson, confirmed “that Trinity has received multiple threats and, out of an abundance of caution, we have closed campus for the rest of the day.”
The posts, which Williams said were not meant to be public, came in response to the fatal police shooting of Charleena Lyles June 18 in Seattle. The posts said, “It is past time for the racially oppressed to do what people who believe themselves to be ‘white’ will not do, put end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system.” A right-wing website, Campus Reform, suggested that Williams was writing about victims of the Congressional shooting at a Republican baseball practice in suburban Washington and that he said they should have been left to die. The charge was later picked up by other right-wing news outlets, including The Washington Times and The Blaze, leading to a barrage of online and telephoned threats against both Williams and Trinity College.
“I’m calling for the death of a system, white supremacy, not the death of white people,” Williams responded. His Facebook posts never mentioned the Congressional shooting. Williams did, however, share a link to another online piece by another writer that, according to a statement by Trinity’s president, did “culminate with a call to show indifference to the lives of bigots.”
At least as troubling as the threats of violence were the responses of two prominent Connecticut politicians. State House Republican Leader Themis Klarides and state Senator George S. Logan, both Trinity alumni, wrote Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeney to say they were appalled at Williams’ comments “in the aftermath of the attempted assassinations in Alexandria.”
“We are calling upon the school to immediately, and permanently, remove Mr. Williams from the ranks of the school’s faculty,” their letter read, adding that Trinity “has fallen well short of the mark of what should reasonably be expected” in its initial response.
It is bad enough that individual crackpots on the web can’t tell the difference between a comment on the police shooting of a pregnant mentally ill black woman and one about the assault by a lone gunman on baseball-playing congressmen. But that such confusion — and the eagerness to demand the summary dismissal of a faculty member for his online expression — come from supposedly responsible legislators is even more appalling.
The attack on Williams and Trinity is just the latest in a growing list of similar incidents, often inspired by online blacklists like the Professor Watchlist and sites like Campus Reform. In addition to the case of Professor Cloud at Syracuse, recent months have seen the chilling harassment of Harvard professor Danielle Allen and Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamattah Taylor. Earlier this year this blog reported on the experiences of Matthew Boedy of the University of North Georgia and Beth Lueck of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Yet despite these incidents, far too many observers in the media and in academia continue to focus their outrage on student protests against repugnant outside speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter, while all but ignoring the escalating harassment of faculty members and students by right-wing extremists. Moreover, it is no longer possible to deny that threats like those against Williams are in good measure motivated by crude racism, the type historically linked with violence.
“The black community is beside itself all over the country with the constant killing. It doesn’t matter what we do, we still be killed, we still go to jail,” Professor Williams told the Hartford Courant. “Just being black and living is a crime. That’s what seems to be the problem.”
As a scholar, he added, it is his obligation to “speak up about the kind of destructive behavior that white supremacy is dealing on people on a daily basis.”
As the AAUP said in its January 31 statement on “Targeted Online Harassment of Faculty,” “threatening messages are likely to stifle the free expression of the targeted faculty member; further, the publicity that such cases attracts can cause others to self-censor so as to avoid being subjected to similar treatment. Thus, targeted online harassment is a threat to academic freedom.”
That statement also declared:
Governing boards of colleges and universities have a responsibility to defend academic freedom and institutional autonomy, including to protect institutions from undue public interference, by resisting calls for the dismissal of faculty members and by condemning their targeted harassment and intimidation. As the AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities asserts: “When ignorance or ill will threatens the institution or any part of it, the governing board must be available for support. In grave crises it will be expected to serve as a champion. Although the action to be taken by it will usually be on behalf of the president, the faculty, or the student body, the board should make clear that the protection it offers to an individual or a group is, in fact, a fundamental defense of the vested interests of society in the educational institution.” But while the board has a particular responsibility to protect the institution, the maintenance of academic freedom is a responsibility shared by all components of the institution: governing board, administration, and faculty.
Unfortunately, the Connecticut legislators may be correct on one matter: Trinity’s administration may indeed have fallen “short of the mark” in its response, albeit not the mark to which the two Republicans refer. For in a public statement President Berger-Sweeney failed entirely to even mention, much less defend, Professor Williams’ academic freedom and his right to express his personal views on social media. Instead, she called his use of an allegedly offensive hashtag “reprehensible and, at the very least, in poor judgment,” adding that no matter his intent he had gone “against our fundamental values as an institution.”
“I denounce hate speech in all its forms,” she concluded. “I will explore all options to resolve this matter, and I will be back in touch with our community members with our decisions.”
There is only one option consistent with academic freedom. Professor Williams is entitled to his right to express his personal views on social media and the university has the right to differ with those views. But Trinity College must defend the professor’s right to express them without fear of retaliation by the institution. Trinity College should refuse to let the sort of threats and intimidation directed against Professor Williams and the entire campus achieve their insidious aims.
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