Trinity College Scholar Whose Remarks Led to Campus Closure Is Cleared After Review

Updated (7/14/2017, 9:03 p.m.) with comments from Professor Williams’s lawyer and from the editor of Campus Reform.

A Trinity College professor was suspended last month after his Facebook comments on race and law enforcement led to the Connecticut campus to close briefly. But a review has concluded that those remarks are in fact protected by academic freedom, according to a statement issued on Friday by the institution’s president.

Joanne Berger-Sweeney, the president, said in the statement that she did not condone Johnny Eric Williams’s statements, but she blamed much of the outcry directed at him on “misleading and incorrect reports about what he actually said.”

“In particular, the initial report by Campus Reform led to distortions and an ensuing harassment that has become troublingly common for people of color and those who speak out on issues of race and racism,” Ms. Berger-Sweeney wrote. “Such harassment, intended to intimidate, is appalling and, indeed, a threat to freedom of expression and to robust debate aimed at discovering truth and knowledge.”

Mr. Williams has said his comments were taken out of context by some conservative news outlets. Tim Cresswell, the institution’s dean of faculty, conducted the review — later affirmed by the president — that cleared Mr. Williams of violating the college’s policies.

Mr. Williams, an associate professor of sociology, wrote two controversial messages on Facebook last month and later shared an article, posted by an anonymous author on Medium, arguing that minority first responders to the June shootings at a congressional baseball practice should have left white victims to die. Mr. Williams also used the hashtag “Let Them Fucking Die” in one of his posts.

Within days of his post, Campus Reform reported on his remarks, and other conservative media outlets quickly picked up on the story. Mr. Williams later apologized for the trouble his comments had caused.

After Mr. Williams’s remarks were publicized, both he and his campus received threats of violence. The campus closed briefly, and the administration placed Mr. Williams on leave. Meanwhile, the professor said he had fled the state for his and his family’s safety. He will remain away from the college through the fall semester “to provide some time and distance from this recent controversy and to allow him to continue his scholarship on race, racism, and academic freedom,” wrote Ms. Berger-Sweeney.

Later on Friday, Mr. Williams’s lawyer, Todd Steigman, said in an email that the findings of the Trinity review were correct and proper. But he said the college had “still not sufficiently acknowledged that it improperly disciplined Professor Williams by placing him on an involuntary leave of absence and publicly reprimanding him.” He added that Trinity owed his client an apology.

On Friday evening, the editor of Campus Reform, Sterling C. Beard, defended his publication’s journalism. “We displayed Professor Williams’s Facebook posts as they were and quoted him accurately,” he wrote by email. “Attempting to blame our reporting is ducking responsibility. That he and Trinity have been embarrassed by his reckless behavior, and are now furiously backpedaling and deflecting, in no way diminishes the accuracy of our story.”

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