Up until June 2017, Dana Cloud was a relatively anonymous professor in the Department of Communications and Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University, a private research institution in central New York state.
But Cloud, like a small but growing list of minority college professors, gained national notoriety for a comment that was taken out of context and spread far and wide across an increasingly partisan media ecosystem. Cloud, who is a lesbian, quickly joined Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Tommy Curry, and Johnny Eric Williams (who are black professors at Princeton, Texas A&M and Trinity College, respectively) in receiving death threats in mid-2017.
Here is how the process unfolded: On 10 June, Cloud was part of a local counter-demonstration against anti-Muslim “March Against Sharia” rallies held by ACT for America nationwide, about which she tweeted to her followers:
We almost have the fascists in on the run. Syracuse people come down to the federal building to finish them off.
Cloud said she was encouraging other counter-protesters to join her in an effort to thwart the “March Against Sharia” demonstration, but four days later, the conservative web site CampusReform.org (who scour the web for evidence of liberal bias on college campuses) claimed that Cloud had “issued a veiled call for violence against a conservative group.” Two days after that, conservative commentator Ann Coulter retweeted Cloud’s message to her nearly 1.6 million followers.
Cloud’s tweet was taken out of context, was lifted from her Twitter account days after its original posting, and was not issued as an incitement to violence. Moreover, it apparently did not have the latter effect (intended or not), as Syracuse police told us there were no reports of violence and no arrests in connection with the March Against Sharia. But that didn’t stop the cascade of hate and death threats sent to Cloud, of which we have posted some examples below (that contain offensive language):
Cloud told us via e-mail that she believes her comments and those of the other professors have been purposely misinterpreted:
The point is that the statement has no automatic association with violence until they pick up that interpretation and run with it for the purpose of building a cadre of bullies who will then go after me or any other intellectual. It’s happening right now to John Williams at Trinity College in a big way … He has had to flee for his safety. He is a scholar of color and the threats against him were more serious and local to where he lived and worked.
None of us should apologize for our language choices because that buys into the narrative that we are somehow to blame for these attacks. It’s important to turn the narrative around with the University administration by showing examples of the insults and threats and putting forward the political analysis — this is a Right-wing movement strategy not a set of mistakes among critical faculty.
As Cloud mentioned, a similar chain of events took place involving John Williams, an associate professor of sociology at Trinity College, a small, private liberal arts school in Hartford, Connecticut. The controversy involving Williams began on 20 June 2017, when Campus Reform picked up two posts he wrote on his personal Facebook page in the wake of two incidents involving the wrenching topic of police shootings and ethnicity: the acquittal of a Minnesota police officer who killed African-American driver Philando Castile, and the fatal shooting of Charleena Lyles, a pregnant, mentally ill African-American woman in Seattle.
Williams posted a piece by the blogger Son of Baldwin, whose nom de plume is a tribute to literary icon James Baldwin. Titled “Let Them Fucking Die,” the piece featured a photograph of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was wounded by a gunman in Alexandria, Virginia, on 14 June 2017, and it noted that the Capitol Police officer who was also wounded while coming to Scalise’s rescue was a black woman who is part of the LGBT community.
The piece argued that members of oppressed communities shouldn’t feel obligated to put their lives on the line for “bigots” whose actions would in turn imperil their own, listing a number of life-threatening circumstances including choking, drowning, “bleeding out in an emergency room” or “If they are in a park and they turn their weapons on each other: Do nothing.”
Accompanying the posting of that piece, Williams wrote:
It is past time for the racially oppressed to do what people who believe themselves to be ‘white’ will not do, put [an] end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system #LetThemFuckingDie
A few minutes later, he posted:
I’m fed the fuck up with self identified ‘whites’ daily violence directed at immigrants, Muslim, and sexually and racially oppressed people. The time is now to confront these inhuman assholes and end this now.
Williams maintained that he was directing his comments at the system of white supremacy and was not actually calling for the deaths of white people. On 21 June 2017 he issued a clarification about his original Facebook posts:
For the entirety of my adult life I have worked to inform my students, colleagues, and the public about the dire and destructive character of oppression and worked to push all of us towards making the world a more just, equitable and humane place.
The recent displays of hate and explicit death threats I have received via email and telephone in response to my recent posts are par for the course in the work that I do but this attack is at a level of vitriol and hatred in excess of what I have ever experienced.
This response seems to be a concerted campaign to attack not just what *they think* I said in my post but to attack my integrity, scholarship, teaching, department, and college. The publicity it is receiving also seems to be an organized warning to all others who want to speak out. This seems to be a national drive of intimidation of professors which all colleges and universities should be concerned about.
It is evident to anyone who carefully reads my posts on Facebook and Twitter that I did not call for the death of all self-identified ‘whites.’ I merely attached the hashtag to my post derived from a blog article written by Son of Baldwin entitled “Let Them All Fucking Die.” This was an admittedly provocative move to get readers to pay attention to my reasoned, reasonable, and yes angry argument.
I posted my comments on social media to draw the attention of the readers to the current dire state of white supremacy in the nation.
We can debate whether social media has expanded, contracted, or perverted the public sphere.
We all know that its anonymity and lack of face to face accountability makes meanness and ad hominem attacks easy to do.
I did not and do not use it in that way. My detractors have.
As in Cloud’s case, CampusReform.org found Williams’ posts and wrote a story asserting that Williams had “appeared to endorse the idea that first responders to last week’s congressional shooting should have let the victims ‘fucking die’ because they are white”.
Peter Fricke, managing editor for CampusReform.org, told us the publication was unable to reach Williams for clarification before publishing their story about him:
It’s always possible for a person’s comments to be misinterpreted, which is precisely the reason that Campus Reform makes certain to contact the subjects of our stories. Professor Williams had ample opportunity to clarify his meaning before our original article was published, and when our reporter asked him to elaborate on objections he expressed after it was posted, Williams responded by blocking our reporter on Twitter, effectively closing off lines of communication.
As of 3 July 2017, that story had been shared almost 50,000 times and was picked up by multiple conservative outlets. Williams’ name and picture have also been placed on ProfessorWatchlist.org, a web site run by the non-profit group Turning Point USA, which singles out professors for a wide range of activities, from alleged assault to telling students not to use the term “illegal immigrant” on exams to driving students to polling stations so that they can vote. We reached out to ProfessorWatchlist.org spokesman Matt Lamb with questions about the site but we have not yet received answers to them.
A day after the CampusReform.org story was posted, the Trinity College campus was closed down due to phoned-in threats, including one from a caller who said that he had a gun and was coming to shoot Williams and anyone who got in his way, Hartford police told us.
Williams has now been placed on paid leave by Trinity College as a result of his statements and the ensuing threats. Trinity College president Joanne Berger-Sweeney said in a 26 June 2017 statement that college officials were reviewing the incident:
We’ve determined that a leave is in the best interest of both Professor Williams and the college. The review by the Dean of the Faculty of the events concerning Professor Williams will continue.
Meanwhile, I want to take care to note that the principles that underlie this particular set of events go far beyond the actions of any one person. These involve principles that concern how we think about academic freedom and freedom of speech, as well as the responsibilities that come with those fundamental values. It’s true, too, that as scholars and citizens, and as individuals and as a community of higher learning, our roles in and relationship to social media and the public sphere are complicated. We must be able to engage in conversations about these difficult and complex issues, and Trinity College and other places like it are precisely where such conversations should occur. I, for one, welcome them.
Hundreds of professors, alumnae and members of the public have signed a statement expressing support and solidarity with Williams, which reads in part:
The attack on Prof. Williams, like the attacks on many other academics (most of whom are scholars of color), is aimed at creating an atmosphere of fear in academia, especially among those who write critically about racism and white supremacy. These attacks tend to proceed — as they did with Prof. Williams — by ripping comments out of context, spinning them in deceptive ways, and plastering them across social media. Such attacks do not generate the critical debate characteristic of a free society, but spur angry individuals to vent their hatred and anger onto professors and their institutions. We reject these tactics of intimidation and denounce the chilling effect they intend to produce upon our lives and our scholarship. We stand firmly against the efforts of those who seek to target, distort, intimidate, and punish scholars, especially scholars of color. We recognize that opposition to a system of oppression does not constitute hate speech. We refuse to allow advocates of hate speech and violence to define what constitutes academic freedom, free speech, or scholarship.
Cloud, on the other hand, has not been disciplined. Chancellor Kent Syverudat has said in statements that he supports her and has no intention of penalizing her:
Free speech is and will remain one of our key values. Our faculty must be able to say and write things — including things that provoke some or make others uncomfortable — up to the very limits of the law.
Fricke told us that Campus Reform, which is operated by the non-profit group Leadership Institute, does not engage in harassment campaigns against professors:
We never single out professors to investigate, and certainly have no desire to “intimidate” anyone. In many cases, our stories are based on tips sent to us by readers, and our purpose in reporting them is not to silence opposing views, but to bring to light the extent to which liberal viewpoints predominate on college campuses.
He added the publication adheres to “journalistic standards of accuracy and accountability” and said he considers sending death threats to anyone to be “a particularly cowardly and despicable course of action”.
The recent chain of events has raised questions from others about academic freedom, freedom of speech, and the racial component of the attacks in an era of Internet outrage, however.
Tommy Curry, a philosophy professor at Texas A&M, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor in the department of African-American Studies at Princeton, are both black. Curry received death threats after a conservative blog reposted comments he made in 2012 about the historical role of violence in racial justice movements, asserting that he was calling for the killing of white people. Taylor had to cancel part of a speaking tour due to threats she received after Fox News aired a commencement speech she gave at Hampshire College in which she criticized President Donald Trump. (That cable news channel characterized her speech as an “anti-POTUS tirade.”)
Curry told us by telephone that overall, he believed college administrators have been too quick to punish professors while failing to adequately condemn death threats made against them and allowing the “alt-right” to frame the narratives surrounding these incidents:
The administrators are taking things like hashtags literally, and meanwhile people are threatening to kill professors. … The alt-right wants the ability to censor what people teach at universities. You have professors of color who are critical of society because they have been victims of racism and genocide, but when people threaten your life for teaching about that, [the university] instead condemns you and not the threats. This is going to have a chilling effect on the recruitment and retaining of people of color [in academia].
These are white supremacist [media] outlets. You can’t keep having it both ways — you can’t have an audience made up of white supremacists and then say ‘I’m not a white supremacist.’
Many of the threats Curry received were virulently racist, invoking loaded racial epithets and comparing African-Americans to monkeys.
Hank Reichman, who chairs the American Association of University Professors Committee on Academic Freedom, told us the new trend is an intensification of an old pattern in which people angry at college professors who have made controversial comments lobby to get them fired. However, that pattern has been enabled and intensified by the Internet and social media, as well as a segment of the population emboldened by the rhetoric of the 2016 U.S. presidential election:
Over the last ten years, the spread of social media has made it so much easier for people to react and do these kind of things — there are clearly people just sitting around and waiting for the next incident so they can send out a bunch of email threats and what have you. Our biggest concern has been with [college] administrators, who need to have a a spine where they support faculty when this happens. At Syracuse University, there the chancellor issued a very strong statement saying [he wouldn’t discipline Dana Cloud]. Contrast that with Trinity College where they put [Williams] on leave. Death threats are terrible, but my real anger is at Trinity College for not defending him at all.
Ari Cohn, an attorney and director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the nonpartisan advocacy organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), told us that the onus falls upon school administrators to protect faculty, but also upon the public at large. He also attributed this trend, in part, to the “internet troll culture”:
[Administrators] have to have a backbone, stand up to these internet mobs and say, “This is a campus where we value freedom of expression.” Intellectual vitality comes from free exchange of ideas — that’s how we create knowledge.
Just speaking to everyone generally, if you read something you disagree with, don’t call for the person’s head, prove them wrong. It’s so much more effective. Getting them fired hurts them, but not their idea and you make them a martyr.
Faculty members also need to be willing to stand up for themselves and for each other, especially when a faculty member who you may disagree with is facing one of these things. Stand up for their rights because you could be next.
In an editorial about the recent phenomenon, Ursinus College politics professor Jonathan Marks came to the defense of Lisa Durden, a part-time faculty member at Essex County College who appeared on the Fox News program Tucker Carlson Tonight. Durden argued that Black Lives Matter activists should have the right to hold a Memorial Day party in which only black attendees were welcome, and in response to the ensuing outrage, the college fired her. Marks wrote of that event that:
If Carlson’s imaginary adjunct-instructor position were in jeopardy, we would ridicule [college] President Munroe for coddling the “snowflakes,” who mustn’t be frustrated, and who are frightened by edgy talk-show commentators. Lisa Durden behaved on Tucker Carlson Tonight, and spoke no differently, than others who appear on that show and on its combative counterparts. Lisa Durden said that it is all right to ask white people not to attend a Memorial Day party. Pass the smelling salts …
Perhaps we conservatives are prepared to overlook our principles and reputations because it is a pleasure to see the language of safe spaces come back to bite the left, or because Durden, who has compared her experience to a lynching, is an unsympathetic victim. If so, we have one other reason for backing up Durden: saving our own skins. If she can be fired because her views on race offended someone, so can any critic of affirmative action, or of the field of ethnic studies, or of immigration policy under the Obama administration. If a college administration can fire Durden because some in its community were frustrated, concerned, and even frightened by her views, then they can fire anyone, but maybe especially us.
In a followup e-mail to us, Marks spoke of the need to defend free speech, but he also noted that colleges and universities, along with professors, must support each other against Internet mobs lest they become the next targets of snowballing outrage:
Free speech does not have a natural constituency. That Americans have at times been willing to concede, or even be proud of, the decision to let the Nazis march in Skokie, is a remarkable and improbable achievement that requires an ongoing educational effort to preserve. That free speech at our colleges and universities is today under attack from self-proclaimed antifascists and right-wingers, and that timid administrators have not, at times, mounted an adequate defense, is not surprising and, though the participants in the fight change, is nothing new. What’s needed on campuses is a good understanding, now lacking, of why, in spite of the reasonable desire to protect people from derogatory speech, colleges and universities must be even more friendly to free speech than the Court has been.