BY HANK REICHMAN
Besieged Trinity College professor Johnny Eric Williams yesterday issued a statement apologizing for his use of a controversial hashtag on a Facebook post, even as he remained in hiding out of fear of death threats made against him and his family. Those threats, as I reported Wednesday, compelled Trinity to shut down the campus.
“It was overwhelming for my family,” Williams told the Hartford Courant. “I have to look out for my family. I’ve got young kids.”
Williams also emailed an apology to the campus community. “In yesterday’s frenzy, amid the the escalating threats to my family and me and the incessant harassment that so many associated with Trinity College were receiving, there is one important thing I didn’t say: I am sorry,” said Williams. “I regret that the hashtag that I quoted from the title of an article was misinterpreted and misperceived 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.”
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. 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 to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system.” The posts did, however, include an inflammatory and profane hashtag — “Let Them Fucking Die” — taken from a different Internet piece about the Congressional shooting at a Republican baseball practice in suburban Washington, although Williams himself did not reference that incident. A right-wing website, Campus Reform, suggested, however, that Williams was writing about the congressional shooting, a charge later picked up by other right-wing news outlets leading to a barrage of online and telephoned threats against both Williams and Trinity College.
In an email to campus Wednesday, Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeney called the hashtag reference “reprehensible, and any such suggestion is abhorrent.” She also announced that the dean of faculty will review the matter and decide whether procedures or polices had been broken. [NOTE: My previous post on this topic mistakenly claimed that Berger-Sweeney’s message had “failed entirely to even mention, much less defend, academic freedom.” In fact, she did write that “we continue to uphold our fundamental belief in academic freedom and support our community members’ constitutional right to free speech.” Unfortunately, that statement was immediately followed by this negating qualification: “But our aspirations for the community we want to be also demand we take particular care with the words we use and the contexts in which we use them” and the president went on to explain that she would “explore all options to resolve this matter,” hardly a ringing defense of Williams’s rights.]
In response to these events, Trinity College’s AAUP chapter issued a statement, declaring that “it is evidently clear to us that Johnny is not calling for violence against any person, but rather using social media as a platform to engage, discuss and debate his critique of structure of racist oppression in America.”
The statement said it is “important to remember that there is currently an organized effort to intimidate academics and especially those who speak out about issues of race and white supremacy, as Johnny did. … We should not entertain the positions of those who … seek to target, distort, intimidate, and punish an individual based on a (mis)reading of a few posts.”
Referring to the online publication that misconstrued Williams’ posts, leading to his harassment, the professors’ statement said “Campus Reform, which helped propagate the hit on Johnny, is one institution we cannot let define what constitutes academic freedom, speech and scholarship.
“We call on President Berger-Sweeney and Dean [Timothy] Cresswell to vigorously uphold the principles of academic freedom.”
So far, that call remains unanswered and Professor Williams and his family remain in hiding. There has, to my knowledge, also been no public response by the college to the demand by two Republican state legislators that Williams be fired from his position.
Trinity College’s Faculty Manual does provide for an Academic Freedom Committee, whose primary function “shall be to protect and extend academic freedom at the College.” I certainly hope that this committee will vigorously defend the academic freedom of Professor Williams, should the college mistakenly seek to take any disciplinary action against him for his Facebook post.
Professor Williams has apologized, even though his original comments were misrepresented. It is now time for Trinity College — and all college and university administrations — to join faculty members nationwide in forcefully standing up to targeted online harassment. As the petition being circulated by the AAUP puts it: “When one disagrees with statements made by others, threats of violence are not the appropriate response. Such threatening messages are likely to stifle free expression and cause faculty and others on campus to self-censor so as to avoid being subjected to similar treatment. . . . The free exchange of ideas is incompatible with an atmosphere of fear.”
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