Because Trinity is a private university, it could draw up rules that prohibited such speech as outside the zone of academic freedom. Most Americans would probably agree that Williams crossed some kind of line in making his death wish (“#LetThemFuckingDie”) and compounded it by denying the humanity of other people (“inhuman assholes”). The First Amendment might protect Williams’ right to say such things, but academic freedom does not, and the college has a duty to its students to provide instructional faculty who possess enough self-control to tell the difference.
Trinity College may find some comfort in knowing that it is only one college among a great many to have made the kind of compromise that led to its Johnny Eric Williams moment. Trinity President Berger-Sweeney did her best in playing a bad hand when she distinguished between defending Williams’ “right to express his opinions” and her distaste for some of those opinions.
If colleges are to be more than platforms from which people can shout their disordered fury, more than stages for the perpetual reenactment of racial and other grievances, we should be working now to draw some lines. A man like Johnny Eric Williams should not be a professor at a college that claims the public trust. He has, however, fairly won his fight, given the rules we accepted in higher education. That simply means it is time to change the rules.