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The tweet heard 'round the world: Charleston professor sparks global Twitter debate

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Associate professor Rachel McKinnon teaches philosophy at the College of Charleston on Thursday January 26, 2017. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

A College of Charleston professor got a wave of international Twitter backlash after she posted a series of controversial tweets on Sunday.

The saga started Aug. 23, when Rachel McKinnon, an associate professor of philosophy tweeted, “It's okay to be happy, even celebrate, when bad people die.”

Things started to heat up Sunday when a Twitter user asked McKinnon if she thought it was OK to celebrate the death of a young person suffering from an incurable brain tumor, alluding to the online feminist influencer Magdalen Berns.

McKinnon stood by her statement, tweeting, "Eh, if they're a trash human actively trying to harm marginalized people because of who they are? I think it's justified." 

Mckinnon tweet

Berns, a U.K.-based feminist online personality, is terminally ill with glioblastoma, a rare type of brain tumor.

McKinnon, who is a transgender woman, has called Berns a "transphobe," someone prejudiced against transgender people, and has repeatedly said on Twitter that the backlash has been fueled by transphobia. 

"This is maybe the third time transphobes have mass organized an angry campaign to have me fired or disciplined. It's never worked before, it's not going to work now. And now I have the extra protection of tenure," McKinnon tweeted Tuesday

Some Twitter users want McKinnon to apologize. Others want her fired.

An online letter that condemned McKinnon’s tweets and called for a formal public apology was addressed to Larry Krasnoff, chair of the college's Department of Philosophy. The letter was posted Monday and endorsed by more than 300 people. 

The College of Charleston issued a statement Monday saying that faculty comments and statements are protected by the First Amendment and the college’s academic freedom policies.

The statement also encouraged all of the college’s faculty, staff and students to “conduct themselves within the bounds of its adopted core values.”

“The College expects its faculty members to make every effort to exercise appropriate restraint and show respect for the opinions of others when engaging them on challenging issues,” the statement read.

Krasnoff declined to answer if the college was planning to take any action against McKinnon.

McKinnon started working for the college in 2014 and was awarded tenure in March. She became an associate professor in August.

McKinnon has remained active on Twitter, and has tweeted multiple updates as the backlash continued on Wednesday. 

"I never said that *I* am happy that Magdalen is dying of brain cancer. I merely said that I think such an attitude is ethically justified when the person dying has engaged in extreme harassment of a marginalized group ...," McKinnon tweeted

McKinnon has also tweeted that her comments about being happy when bad people die is a common ethical question. 

“The issue of whether it can be appropriate to express pleasure at the death of a bad person is a recognizable question in moral philosophy,” Krasnoff said in an email.

This isn’t the first time McKinnon has stirred controversy on campus.

In 2017, shortly after President Donald Trump was elected, McKinnon received a complaint from a student’s mother alleging that McKinnon had a mental breakdown and was silencing conservative students in class, according to a previous story by The Post and Courier.

McKinnon was involved with a different international public controversy earlier this year with tennis star Martina Navratilova. McKinnon, who is also a world-champion cyclist, condemned Navratilova's comments that transgender women shouldn't be able to participate in female sports. 

McKinnon tweeted Monday that her original tweet referenced the recent death of David Koch, a billionaire who helped fund a right-wing libertarian movement, not Berns. 

McKinnon did not respond this week to several requests for comment. 

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