Trinity College Hartford, Connecticut feat
Trinity College professor’s ‘let them fucking die’ posts are protected speech; continued investigation unwarranted

By July 7, 2017

On June 16, Trinity College professor Johnny Eric Williams shared, via his personal Facebook page, an anonymous writer’s controversial essay urging oppressed minorities to “do nothing” to help if they encountered people “who practice bigotry” in danger. The piece cited the actions of Crystal Griner, a “queer black woman” and member of the U.S. Capitol Police, in saving the life of Rep. Steve Scalise, “one of the most anti-LGBTQ politicians in Washington,” after Scalise was shot and severely wounded by a gunman at a congressional baseball practice on June 14. The Medium essay concluded that the proper response to “bigots” in danger was to “let them fucking die” instead of coming to their aid. Williams’ Facebook post added no commentary — supportive or critical — to the Medium post.

Two days later, news unfolded that police in Seattle had shot and killed a black mother armed with a knife. Williams posted on Facebook again, borrowing the “let them fucking die” refrain from the Medium essay to call on readers to “confront” white people who direct violence at “oppressed people,” and “put an end to … their white supremacy system.”

This time, Williams’ posts were consolidated and shared by media outlets characterizing them as endorsing “the idea that first responders to last week’s congressional shooting should have let the victims ‘fucking die’ because they are white” and that Rep. Scalise “should have been left to die because he’s white.”

The ensuing controversy led Trinity College to temporarily close its campus, citing threats sparked by the controversy. FIRE condemned this development, the latest in a reprehensible string of incidents in which professors have been the target of violent threats. As my colleague Will Creeley wrote on June 23, “[t]hreatening violence against those who hold opinions different from one’s own is a particularly evil form of censorship.”

First Amendment protects provocative, offensive, even violent speech

Professor Williams has argued — credibly, given that they reference violence against oppressed groups  — that his posts were in response to a police shooting in Seattle, not the attack on Rep. Scalise. But even assuming Williams’ posts were, as critics have characterized them, endorsements of violence against white people, they do not fall outside the universe of speech protected by the First Amendment. Our courts have recognized that protecting political speech means protecting speech which can be provocative, offensive, and even imbued with the rhetoric of violence. Such speech can only be limited where it is likely to incite imminent violence or expresses a sincere intent to act violently.

Trinity College is, of course, not a public institution. The college’s handbook, however, recognizes that “[f]ree inquiry and free expression are essential” to its goals. Additionally, Connecticut law prohibits private employers from terminating employees in response to speech protected by the First Amendment — a law that has been held to restrain private employers in Connecticut.

Trinity College could have quickly concluded that Williams’ posts were protected speech and issued a full-throated defense of its students’ and faculty members’ rights to engage in provocative, even offensive, speech, while simultaneously condemning and disagreeing with Williams’ views. Instead, the college announced it would undertake a “review” of Williams’ expressed views to determine whether they conflict with college policy, and ordered him to take a leave of absence in the meantime.

Punishment-by-process

Administrators at institutions facing a tidal wave of sudden criticism are often tempted to announce an “investigation” into whatever caused the flood of emails, phone calls, and media inquiries. It’s a solution they believe to be within their control (even if it isn’t, when you consider the public reaction or judicial review). If administrators are either unfamiliar with how to cobble together and verbalize a defense of free speech or academic freedom, or are unsure of the full spectrum of facts, a knee-jerk investigation feels like a solution.  

But this solution is temporary at best, and investigations can have chilling effects: Publicly-announced investigations are intended to signal that something punishable has likely occurred and that it merits close scrutiny by authorities. Investigations that proceed beyond a cursory review may mean interviews, lawyers, interrogations, and other coercive elements that amount to punishment-by-process. In other words, a penalty is borne even if the target is ultimately exonerated.

We explained as much in our July 3 letter to Trinity College’s president, and called upon Trinity to abandon its “review” into clearly protected speech. Unfortunately, Trinity’s response was underwhelming. While Trinity president Joanne Berger-Sweeney said she shares an “appreciation” for FIRE’s concerns, she pushed back, responding that the review she commissioned will move forward and “include thoughtful consideration of issues pertaining to academic freedom (with the input of Trinity’s faculty committee on academic freedom), as well as other college policies pertaining to the conduct of employees.”

That’s a nice sentiment, but maintenance of an investigation when the speech is clearly protected by both law and policy undermines Trinity’s institutional credibility. An investigation where the only lawful outcome is to take no action can serve no purpose but to attempt to silence inconvenient voices. That is not in keeping with Trinity’s mission and it is not an outcome FIRE will ignore.

Schools: Trinity College Cases: Trinity College: Professor Faces Threats, Investigation for Facebook Posts