By Stefanie Phillips, RSJ ’18

Williams and Turk sit in front of microphones talking.

Williams and Turk talk about academic free expression. // Photo by Stefanie Phillips

On the evening of June 18, 2017, Johnny Eric Williams was angry. He had just finished reading about the acquittal of Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez on charges related to the death of Black motorist Philando Castille and he was “enraged” by the court’s decision.

The sociology professor from Trinity College in Connecticut, took to social media in this moment of anger to post messages calling on oppressed people to “put an end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system,” followed with the hashtag, “#LetThemFuckingDie.” The hashtag, Williams says, was directly linked to a Medium article by a writer who publishes under the pseudonym Son of Baldwin. Williams had shared the piece, entitled, “Let Them Fucking Die,” on his personal social media accounts earlier that week.

Speaking at Ryerson on Oct. 12, Williams spoke about the role of free expression in academia and his decision to take his views to social media. Called “White Licence, Free Expression and Death Threats: The Challenges of Confronting Racism,” the talk was hosted by the Centre for Free Expression (CFE).

Soon after Williams made his social media comments in June, the college condemned him. Williams’ supporters – including the American Association of University Professors – quickly began to advocate for the professor’s rights to free expression and in July, the school cleared Williams of any wrongdoing. However, he remains on voluntary, paid leave through the fall.

Williams weighed in on the difference between hate speech that promotes violence and academic speech that doesn’t. // Photo by Stefanie Phillips

CFE director and Distinguished Visiting Professor James Turk said he invited Williams to speak at Ryerson and engage in a discussion about free speech in academia because of the increase of incidents involving academic free speech in the news.

Turk said right-wing provocateurs such as Ann Coulter are claiming an attack on free speech champions, but in practice, those provocateurs are “serving trolls who feast on the bones of liberalism.”

“The reality is increasing the numbers of marginalized academics, racialized women, racialized faculty and LBGTQ faculty are being targeted,” Turk said.

Williams said that free speech in academia is being limited by the “boilerplate” statements used by university administration and leadership. He said this language avoids identifying white supremacy and tries to separate education from emotion. “By not naming and confronting white supremacy as an omnipresent system, the racially oppressed voices and resistance is silenced in ways that protects or enables whites to continue to operate in systemic and inhuman ways,” he said, admitting that the idea is “hard-hitting.”

He specifically referred to the use of phrases, “just society” and “respectful listening” in an initiative at Trinity College about free expression on the campus. He called this language “empty rhetoric.”

“It means nothing.” He said. “Respectful listening should from my perspective include being broad enough to take in heightened language. Personal truths and anger. There’s nothing wrong with emotion in knowledge.”

When asked where the line can be drawn between hate speech that provokes violence and academic speech that does not, Turk said when dealing with problems of racism, discrimination and Islamophobia the answer is not to silence people.

“The reason we have racism is not because racists speak,” he said.

His response came in light of the recent decision, by the institution, to cancel a panel discussion at Ryerson University that was scheduled to take place in August 2017. The panel entitled, “The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses” was cancelled due to security concerns, according to the University.

Turk said the university made the wrong choice when they decided to cancel the event because in doing so they took on a position of authority, deciding who can speak and who cannot speak, a decision he said encroaches on “dangerous” territory.

The cancelled panel was supposed to include three conservative professors, including University of Toronto psychology professor, Jordan Peterson and Faith Goldy who worked for the far-right publication, Rebel media until she was fired by Ezra Levant.

Discussing his Facebook and Twitter comments, Williams said his June posts were misconstrued. “I did not call for the death of self-identified whites,” he said. “[The posts] were a mildly provocative move to get readers to pay attention to my reasonable and yes, angry argument.”

Williams received a number of death threats to him and his family but those threats did not push him to apologize. “We in the academy must do more than just say we believe in these principles [of free speech] we must practice and defend them.”

He said this response should be a warning sign to all others who want to speak out.

“This seems to be a national drive of intimidation of professors which all colleges universities should be concerned about.”