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Disturbing trend continues: Trinity College professor faces threats

The repeated outbreaks of violence in response to campus speech made the past semester one of the most depressing I’ve worked in my decade of defending campus rights here at FIRE. Unfortunately, that ugly trend is now matched by another deeply disturbing phenomenon: professors fielding violent threats for exercising their right to free speech.

The list of recent examples is growing at a grim rate. My colleague Samantha Harris wrote for Vox earlier this month about Princeton University professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who received threats following a Hampshire College commencement address in which she criticized President Donald Trump. Texas A&M University professor Tommy Curry received threats after comments he made about Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” in a 2012 podcast resurfaced. Professor Sarah Bond of the University of Iowa received threats after penning an article suggesting that ancient statues were initially painted colors and have faded to white over time. Professor Bret Weinstein of Evergreen State College was told that campus police couldn’t guarantee his safety if he returned to campus after criticizing a change in a “Day of Absence” initiative.

The latest recipient of such threats is Professor Johnny Eric Williams of Trinity College, whose Facebook post on a Seattle, Washington police shooting was criticized in an article published by conservative website Campus Reform. Trinity College was also a target, and closed Wednesday after receiving “multiple threats” against the institution, per a spokesperson.

Threatening violence against those who hold opinions different from one’s own is a particularly evil form of censorship. The rash of violent threats against faculty is a terrible trend that requires unequivocal condemnation from all Americans who care about the health of our democracy.

To be clear: Responding to speech with threats is morally repugnant, illiberal, and potentially illegal. True threats — defined by the Supreme Court of the United States in 2003’s Virginia v. Black as “statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals” — are not protected by the First Amendment. Neither is intimidation, defined by the Court in the same case as “a type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.”

In each of these recent instances, the faculty member who received threats had engaged in plainly protected political speech, typically involving contentious issues like race relations. If our nation’s faculty members cannot evaluate and express opinions on the issues of the day without being subjected to violent threats, the Supreme Court’s stark warning in Sweezy v. New Hampshire will prove prophetic: “Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.”

As the American Association of University Professors made clear in a statement issued earlier this year, “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.” This is absolutely correct. Universities must stand by their faculty members’ rights to express themselves, especially in the face of violent threats. Otherwise, the heckler’s veto will have been proven successful — and will be repeated.

To that end, Trinity must affirm that Williams will not face discipline or investigation for his protected speech. As Hank Reichman, chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, wrote earlier this week:

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.

We strongly agree. FIRE will be watching to make sure that Trinity follows Reichman’s clear prescription.

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