HARTFORD (AP) >> The president of Trinity College says the commentary of a professor who came under fire for his social media posts are protected by academic freedom and he did not violate any college policies.
Threats related to posts by Professor Johnny Williams led the private college in Hartford, Connecticut, to close its campus one day last month.
Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeney said the sociology professor shared a piece that concluded with a call to show indifference to the lives of bigots. Williams has said his posts were twisted to sound as though they referred to last month’s congressional shooting in Virginia.
Berger-Sweeney said Friday that she does not condone the professor’s posts but supports his right to express his opinions. She affirmed a dean’s conclusion that Williams did not violate policies.
David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said in a statement, “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,” McGuire said in the statement. “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.”
McGuire’s statement also said, “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.”
Also in a statement, The American Association of University Professors said “In a victory for academic freedom, the administration of Trinity College in Connecticut acknowledged today that Professor Johnny Williams’s social media posts ‘were protected by academic freedom and did not violate Trinity College policies.’”
The AAUP had “urged the Trinity administration to lift Williams’s suspension and planned to send a committee of inquiry to visit Trinity on July 20. With the resolution of this case, our further intervention is no longer warranted. Professor Williams has agreed to remain on a leave of absence through the fall semester,” the statement said. “We applaud the excellent work of our local chapter at Trinity College, which organized expressions of solidarity and opposition to the administration’s actions.”