Alumni take Trinity to task over free speech 'double standard'

Two Trinity College alumni have publicly rebuked their alma mater’s president for her school’s hypocrisy on free speech.

As Campus Reform previously reported, Trinity Professor Johnny Eric Williams became the subject of public controversy related to Facebook posts in which he appeared to call white people “inhuman assholes” before suggesting that they be allowed to “fucking die.”

Two days prior, Williams had shared a Medium article titled “Let Them Fucking Die” in which the anonymous author suggests that “bigots,” such as those numbered among the victims of the congressional shooting, should be left for dead.

[RELATED: Lawmakers want Trinity prof ousted for ‘reprehensible’ remarks]

Media attention and condemnation from public officials resulted in a statement from Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeney, who repudiated “hate speech or calls to incite violence,” and announced “that a leave is in the best interest of both Professor Williams and the college.”

Trinity subsequently disclosed, however, that it would reinstate Williams, but that he would remain suspended until the end of the year as part of a mutual agreement.

When Trinity alumnus William Matthews read about the incident, he told Campus Reform that he struggled with his feelings on the matter, saying that while “emotionally” he thought Williams “should have been fired,” he could not determine “by what standard” or “whose.”

[RELATED: Christian prof claims he was fired for mentioning God]

‘We’re back, again, to a discretionary rule-of-man and not rule-of-law, applied equally,” he said, noting that Trinity’s ultimate tolerance of Williams’ remarks stood in stark contrast to its draconian student speech codes, summarizing the college’s attitude as “academic freedom for me, speech and behavior codes for thee.”

In fact, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) assigned Trinity College a “yellow light” rating for its prohibitive speech policies, pointing to regulations that prohibit “objectionable” materials in students’ private dormitory rooms and bias incidents, which “can include taunting, verbal harassment, bullying, intimidation, or the posting or circulating of demeaning jokes or documents.”  

[RELATED: NAS: Defending embattled Trinity prof is ‘morally tone deaf’

Unable to remain silent on the matter, Matthews and fellow alumnus Andrew Isaac elected to pen a letter to Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeney (a copy of which was obtained by Campus Reform) asking her “what has happened” to their alma mater.

“Do you or anyone on the Board of Trustees see the breathtaking double standard highlighted by the Williams embarrassment—‘academic freedom’ for a professor’s racist words but none for students because of Trinity’s draconic and illiberal speech code?” they ask incredulously.

The two then point out out that the school’s speech code “prohibits speech that ‘expresses hatred or contempt’ on the basis of race which more than adequately describes Prof. Williams’ Twitter posts,” arguing that professors such as Williams “may say and write anything whereas students may say and write almost nothing.”

Berger-Sweeney previously announced that the controversy has cost the school both students and donations, prompting the pair of alumni to call on Trinity to “commit itself unequivocally to freedom of expression and academic freedom,” specifically asking the administration to “immediately adopt the University of Chicago’s ‘Statement on Principles of Free Expression’” and institute “a pledge to abide by and uphold” such principles for all admitted students.

[RELATED: Donors, students ditch Trinity after ‘Campus Reform incident’]

Although Matthews told Campus Reform that he initially “thought Williams should have been fired,” he has now changed his mind, instead saying he believes that subjective and heavy-handed speech codes allow those in power to abuse essential liberties.

“The administration is trying to throttle free speech as a way to suppress speech with which they disagree. In the absence of freedom of expression at Trinity, only they get to speak and share their thoughts without consequence because they are in the judge’s seat,” he argued, suggesting that “calling for Williams’ dismissal is treating the symptom, not the disease.”

Matthews then praised “Campus Reform, FIRE, and other organizations” for “sweeping the horizon for these stories,” saying he believes that such work allows alumni to “keep up with events” at their own and other colleges, facilitating greater alumni involvement and positive change in higher education.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @SFarkas48