Sometimes the public is witness to an event and discerns an outcome that no one will be entirely happy with. It happens in the lawmaking business all the time. We journalists are frequently confronted with this dynamic as well. And I’m afraid this column will be yet another example.
The story of Trinity College Prof. Johnny Eric Williams is a case in point. Williams seems to be channelling President Trump and millions of others in his self-destructive use of social media. In other words, he acts impulsively and consequently is his own worst enemy. President Trump is obviously an unrestrained ignoramus. But Williams is a highly credentialed educator, responsible for shaping young minds at an elite institution. You’d think he would know better.
In case you missed it, after the congressional baseball shooting in Virginia earlier this month in which Republican House Minority Leader Steve Scalise was nearly killed by a Bernie Sanders supporter, Williams unleashed a storm on social media when he linked to an essay by a writer, who goes by the name “Son of Baldwin,” entitled “Let Them [expletive] Die” (expletive deleted) on his personal Facebook page.
Williams’ words were quite reasonably interpreted to mean that the lives of bigots don’t matter and that perhaps a wounded bigot, which Williams presumably believes Scalise to be, shouldn’t receive treatment in life-threatening situations. Hence the title of Son of Baldwin’s essay. For his part, Williams denies endorsing the sentiments in the essay. But that’s hard to believe, given the passion and tone in his Facebook posts.
Now we all know that tenured professors enjoy certain protections that you and I don’t. Under the guise of academic freedom, professors are allowed wide latitude to say and do what they please. This is so that they can feel free to engage in academic research and writings without worrying whether the powers-that-be approve or disapprove. After all, great things can come from pushing the envelope.
But where does academic freedom end and harming the reputation of your employer begin? Trinity is rightly worried that standing idly by while one of its professors implicitly endorses violence and demeans an entire race of people by calling them “inhuman [expletives]” will make the college guilty by association.
Last week, administrators shut down the campus of the elite Hartford liberal arts college in the face of threats of violence made to the institution and to Williams, along with demands that he be fired. The college launched an investigation and Williams and his family fled the area because they feared for their safety.
“It was overwhelming for my family,” Williams told The Courant. “I have to look out for my family. I’ve got young kids.”
Two words come to mind: Well, duh. As a writer, I’ve learned the hard way that words matter. Anything you say can and will be held against you — maybe even against your family. So you need to weigh the impact on your career and family against your need to shoot your mouth off. And making racially inflammatory remarks — especially when tinged with violence — can be a deal-breaker.
The problem is that some college professors, especially those with tenure, seem oblivious to the usual standards of accountability that you and I must adhere to when speaking in public. If I were to go on social media, make racially offensive comments and implicitly endorse such hate-filled rhetoric, then I would expect that there would be significant consequences.
There were loud calls from two alumni and state lawmakers — House Minority Leader Themis Klarides and Sen. George Logan — for Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeney to send Williams packing. Williams was subsequently suspended and put on paid leave. I suspect worse things would happen to you and me.
More troubling still is something I can’t really fault Prof. Williams for. For obvious reasons, the incident garnered lots of national media coverage. And it was picked up by a right-wing website, Campus Reform, which “exposes bias and abuse on the nation’s college campuses,” according to its mission statement. From there Williams was placed on something called the Professor Watchlist, whose goal is “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”
The site is an obvious attempt to intimidate and delegitimize those whose views don’t align with those who operate the Professor Watchlist. And note the not-so-subtle use of the word “watchlist” — something we normally associate with terrorists and fugitives. Williams doesn’t deserve that.
These types of incidents are nothing new. From Ward Churchill to Timothy Leary, the academic landscape is littered with professors who got in trouble for extracurricular activities. Only this month, a community college instructor in New Jersey was fired for racially charged comments she made during an interview on Fox News. A dean at Yale was recently placed on leave and demoted for racist and classist comments in a pair of reviews she wrote on Yelp.
Every time I push out a tweet or post on Facebook — especially if I’m angry — I take a deep breath and ask myself whether my mother or my journalistic mentor, the late great Bob Estabrook, would approve. As for my columns in this space, I don’t have to worry. I have two great editors who save me from myself. But the only editor you have when tweeting out from your phone is yourself. And as we all know, you can’t always trust that guy.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.
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