Academic freedom has won at Trinity College today, as the college’s president wrote in a public statement that Trinity would cease its unwarranted investigation into the personal Facebook posts of professor Johnny Eric Williams.
As my colleague Adam Steinbaugh reported last week, Williams had been under investigation for the content of his Facebook posts, where he shared an article by an anonymous author arguing that the proper response to wounded “bigots” was to “let them fucking die” instead of coming to their aid.
In today’s statement, Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney opens by recognizing that “[f]reedom of inquiry and freedom of expression in pursuit of the truth are essential, not only to the health of the academy but also to the advancement of civilization.” We could not agree more. As FIRE has often noted, in Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957), the Supreme Court of the United States declared that “[t]eachers 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 Adam noted in FIRE’s July 3 letter to Trinity, the investigation contradicted the institution’s own principles and ran counter to Connecticut state law, which applies First Amendment protections to employees at public and private places of work.
President Berger-Sweeney stated that since arriving at Trinity, she has “worked to create spaces for open, respectful dialogues across deep differences.” That’s what college is about — and ending this investigation is an excellent step forward toward accomplishing that goal.
Berger-Sweeney’s statement does not represent a perfect outcome, however. Indeed, it notes that “[b]y mutual agreement, Professor Williams will be on leave throughout the fall semester to provide some time and distance from this recent controversy.” This is regrettable. Nonetheless, the statement is a necessary step in the right direction, and we are pleased Trinity College has recognized the importance of protecting the academic freedom of its faculty.