The Dangers of Filtered Speech

Two more professors -- one at Trinity of Connecticut and one at Syracuse -- find themselves the target of physical threats and harassment.

June 22, 2017
 
John Eric Williams

Trinity College in Connecticut shut down Wednesday over threats directed at an associate professor of sociology who shared a controversial article about race, violence and politics on social media. A professor at Syracuse University also is being targeting online for her involvement in a counterprotest to an anti-sharia event. They're the latest professors to face physical threats or harassment, or both, for their political speech.

Trinity College

The Trinity professor, John Eric Williams, last week shared a link to a Fusion piece called “Bigoted Homophobe Steve Scalise's Life Was Saved by a Queer Black Woman." It points to the fact that Scalise, the Republican congressman who was recently shot at a baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., has previously opposed extending protections to LGBTQ people and reportedly once spoke at a meeting of white supremacists, while one of the black law enforcement officers who rescued him is a married lesbian.

Williams shared the article through an embedded link in Medium, accompanied by commentary from an author called Son of Baldwin, entitled “Let Them Fucking Die.” Baldwin’s piece argues that “indifference to their well-being is the only thing that terrifies” bigots, and so people of color should “Let. Them. Fucking. Die” if they’re ever drowning, “teetering on the edge of a cliff” or caught in various other emergencies.

“Saving the life of those that would kill you is the opposite of virtuous,” Baldwin wrote. In sharing Baldwin’s link to the Fusion article, Williams also used his “Let them fucking die” comment as a hashtag, and wrote that it is “past time for the racially oppressed to do what people who believe themselves to be ‘white’ will not do, put end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system.”

That post and a similar one prompted critical reports on conservative websites suggesting Williams was advocating violence against whites. “Less than one week after a gunman opened fire on more than a dozen Republican members of Congress on a Virginia baseball field, a Connecticut college professor said that first responders to the shooting should have ‘let them die’ because they are white,” The Blaze reported, for example.

Williams told the Hartford Courant that he was writing about white supremacy, police killings of unarmed black people and other forms of institutionalized racism, and not saying that members of Congress should have been left to die because of their race. "This is about free speech as well as academic freedom," he told the newspaper. "From my perspective, I'm considering whether I should file a defamation [claim] against these guys," he added, referring to news sites that suggested otherwise.

"The black community is beside itself all over the country with the constant killing. It doesn't matter what we do, we still be killed, we still go to jail. Just being black and living is a crime. That's what seems to be the problem," Williams added, saying his status as scholar obliges him to "speak up about the kind of destructive behavior that white supremacy is dealing on people on a daily basis."

The various reports led to threats against Trinity and death threats against Williams, according to the Courant, prompting the shutdown so that law enforcement officials could investigate what they described as “nonspecific, noncredible” threats. The campus is expected to reopen today.

Joanne Berger-Sweeney, Trinity’s president, said in a statement that the dean of faculty is reviewing the matter to see if any college policies or procedures were violated, and that she’d personally told Williams “his use of the hashtag was reprehensible and, at the very least, in poor judgment.” No matter its intent, she said, “it goes against our fundamental values as an institution, and I believe its effect is to close minds rather than open them.”

Two state lawmakers reportedly have called for Williams’s termination.

Syracuse University

Dana Cloud, a professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse, is also facing online harassment and physical threats for calling for protesters to stage a counterprotest against an “anti-Sharia law” rally in Syracuse, N.Y., earlier this month, according to her supporters. Cloud, who believed that protesters were using unsubstantiated threats of rule by Islamic law to conjure anti-Muslim sentiments in the area, participated in a nonviolent counterdemonstration and on Twitter asked others to join her. When the opposing group started disperse, she tweeted, “We almost have the fascists in on the run. Syracuse people come down to the federal building to finish them off.”

Campus Reform, another conservative publication, later published an article about the tweet, alleging that “finish them off” was a “veiled call for violence.” Other websites and commentators have since followed suit, and Cloud has received threats. Hundreds of students and scholars have also expressed support for her in a petition that says, in part, that the “hate mail and threats directed against [Cloud] are not isolated phenomena, but part of a campaign of intimidation and harassment against those standing in solidarity with Muslims and other oppressed groups. Professors who speak out against racism and bigotry around the country are being targeted by right-wing media and activists.”

The petition mentions other professors, including Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of Princeton University, who have faced physical threats for their speech in recent weeks. In another example, Sarah Bond, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Iowa, faced harassment after Campus Reform reported that she said the equation of white marble with beauty contributes to white supremacist ideas today. In fact, she'd written that such statues were originally painted in different colors and that paying more attention to that fact might undercut how racist groups or individuals have over time pointed to white marble as the classical ideal.

“These attacks are evidence of a disturbing rise in the confidence of right-wing extremists around the country,” reads the petition in support of Cloud. “We demand that Syracuse University and the broader academic community defend and protect her and all faculty in the exercise of their academic freedom, their right to extramural speech and the exercise of their conscience in civic life.”

Syracuse said in a statement that it “condemns, unequivocally, any threats directed” at Cloud, and that she has clarified that her remarks “were not intended to invite or incite violence.”

Cloud did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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