Barbara Bush, Randa Jarrar, and the Outrage of Free Speech
No Discipline, says President Castro:
Immediately following Professor Jarrar’s tweets last Tuesday, we carefully reviewed the facts and consulted with CSU counsel to determine whether we could take disciplinary action. After completing this process, we have concluded that Professor Jarrar did not violate any CSU or university policies and that she was acting in a private capacity and speaking about a public matter on her personal Twitter account. Her comments, although disgraceful, are protected free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, although Professor Jarrar used tenure to defend her behavior, this private action is an issue of free speech and not related to her job or tenure. Therefore, the university does not have justification to support taking any disciplinary action.
Thanks to @jaybird for catching this.
Randa Jarrar, an on-leave English Professor at Fresno State, took to social media with thoughts on the passing of former first lady Barbara Bush. Almost immediately, a fresh front was opened in the perpetual war between free speech and outrage.
To summarize, from The Chronicle of Higher Education:
In one, she wrote “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal.”
In another, Jarrar, who teaches creative writing to both undergraduate and graduate students, wrote that she was “happy that the witch is dead.” Later she added, “If you’d like to know what it’s like to be an Arab American Muslim American woman with some clout online expressing an opinion, look at the racists going crazy in my mentions right now.”
Jarrar, who did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday, began an hours-long Twitter rant within an hour of the announcement that Bush, 92, had died. When irate readers demanded that she be fired, Jarrar’s response, according to widely circulated screen shots, was “LOL! Let me help you. You should tag my president @JosephCastro. What I love about being an American professor is my right to free speech, and what I love about Fresno State is that I always feel protected and at home here,” she wrote. “GO BULLDOGS!”
People on Twitter reacted with outrage.
Jarrar went on to taunt readers who had objected, according to reposted screen shots, saying that she worked as a tenured professor making $100,000 a year and that people will always want to hear what she has to say.
The social media outrage mob quickly formed, first directly at Ms. Jarrar, then — once her Twitter account was made private — at the university, officials and others. The demands for her firing came quickly, as did the defenders of her right to free speech.
@Popehat lays out the free speech issues thusly
Ken White, a criminal-defense lawyer in Los Angeles, said three factors play into whether her comments are protected speech.
First, was she speaking on a matter of public interest? Yes, he concluded, the death of a public official falls into that category.
Second, was she speaking as a private citizen or as part of her job duties? Since she was on leave and Twitter isn’t part of her job, the answer, he determined, would be as a private citizen.
And third, can her employer show that her speech was so disruptive to the workplace that it interfered with its orderly business? That would be the toughest for Fresno State to prove, White said.
His assessment: “Professor Jarrar was speaking as a private individual on a matter of public interest. It would be difficult for Fresno State to establish that the tweets about Barbara Bush themselves caused the sort of disruption of the school’s business that so outweighs her free-speech interests so that it would justify her termination.”
Speaking for myself, I do not protest, join mobs, or call for firings based only on speech. Free speech means just that, she is free within the law to say what she wants, even as distasteful as her comments might be both in content and timing. Consequences of that speech, however, are a different matter.
The university will do as they see fit, but if in charge of the school, I would absolutely not discipline solely for the speech, nor do you give in to any mob for any reason. But the behavior of purposefully dragging the school and its leadership into what to that point had been comments of personal opinion would be very much reviewed, and possibly actionable.
One last thought to consider for those that are accusing Fresno States president Joseph I. Castro of being too weak in his statement:
This isn’t the first time Fresno State’s president has had to react to a faculty member’s provocative tweet.
Last year Lars Maischak, a lecturer in history, attracted the attention of conservative media outlets by tweeting that “Trump must hang.” Castro condemned the tweet, and Maischak’s contract wasn’t renewed.
A similar approach, of ride out the outrage storm and disciplining quietly later, would probably be both prudent and appropriate. What say you?