Protected Speech, a 'Perfect' Political Target

Randa Jarrar's case at Cal State Fresno has attracted national attention, much of it arguably undue. Will she be punished? It's hard to say, given academe's unpredictable track record on discipline for faculty social media snafus.

April 24, 2018
 
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Randa Jarrar

Randa Jarrar’s celebratory tweets about the death of former first lady Barbara Bush last week clearly hit a nerve. But does the case of the California State University at Fresno English professor really represent a new low in faculty online expression, as the glut of news stories and opinion pieces about it -- along with Fresno State's changing public stances -- suggest?

No, say a number of experts on academic freedom and free speech. Instead, they say, the case is a textbook example of how political provocateurs from the left or right exercise free speech on social media, and, at the same time, supposed “proof” of the right’s deepest fears about professors’ political leanings.

Far from the worst faculty Twitter-gone-wild case, it is “the perfect one, in that Professor Jarrar seems to be proving just what a lot of crusty commentators think goes on in college already,” said Adam Laats, a professor of teaching, learning and educational leadership at the State University of New York at Binghamton who specializes in academic history.

“When something satisfies what people are trying to prove, they’ll pick it up and blow it out of proportion,” he said, arguing that Jarrar has become a stand-in for the academic left.

Beyond Jarrar’s message, she’s also the perfect messenger, Laats said, in that her online persona -- with references to 1970s-era radical activism -- evokes “nostalgia for true leftist radicalism, when you didn’t hurt people but you didn’t care about hurting their feelings.”

‘The Witch Is Dead’

Jarrar, who teaches creative writing, quickly saw thousands of angry replies to her tweets last week saying Bush was an “amazing racist” who raised a “war criminal.” Undeterred, the professor also said she was “happy the witch is dead” and that she couldn’t wait for the rest of the Bush family to “fall to their demise the way 1.5 million Iraqis have.”

Jarrar later tweeted that she couldn’t be fired because she is an associate professor with tenure -- and a $100,000 salary.

Hank Reichman, professor emeritus of history of Cal State’s campus at East Bay and vice president of the American Association of University Professors, said Jarrar’s later tweets amounted to a kind of taunt -- “na-na-na-na-na-na.”

Still, Reichman never thought Jarrar’s comments would come under such scrutiny, he said. That’s because her politically oriented speech on a personal Twitter account was, in his view, clearly protected by the First Amendment. Moreover, he said, it just wasn’t that newsworthy.

“I just thought it was another incident.”

Robert O’Neil, professor of law and president emeritus at the University of Virginia, called the case “bizarre.” But he said he agreed with “academic freedom regulars” that Jarrar’s free expression is protected against any sanction by a public university -- especially one in California, where policies are relatively sensitive.

Few who have defended Jarrar have defended her actual sentiments or style, and O’Neil was no exception. He noted that the timing of her tweets -- within hours of Bush’s death -- seemed designed to “deliberately hurt or wound” and were “arguably and irresponsibly defamatory of a prominent and just deceased public figure.”

Yet Jarrar was speaking of a “very prominent public figure and was not speaking in any sense within the scope of her employment,” O’Neil said. So he offered a “word to the wise," to those who should “know better,” to avoid similar incidents going forward, instead of any hard case for discipline.

O’Neil said that applied even to what is arguably Jarrar’s most offensive tweet: one offering her critics her supposed phone number, which turned out to be a crisis line at another university.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American Civil Liberties Union, among other groups, also have called on Fresno State to halt its investigation of Jarrar.

Unpredictable Responses

Still, the public demands for Jarrar’s termination continue. Reichman blamed the ongoing furor in part on Fresno State’s reaction. While it initially defended Jarrar right to free speech, it later said all options were on the table in terms of discipline as it investigates her tweets. President Joseph Castro has since released an additional statement about the importance of academic freedom, making Jarrar’s fate even harder to divine.

Such equivocating demonstrates to critics that public pressure campaigns against professors work, Reichman said.

“The response of the university should be simply that faculty members speak for themselves,” he said. “And if the faculty member is being harassed or is in danger, then the university should provide appropriate levels of support, without blaming or punishing the faculty member.”

Jarrar has not responded to requests for comment about the incident, and her Twitter account is now private. She’s already on leave for unrelated reasons.

Would she have been placed on leave if she were teaching? It’s hard to say, since no clear pattern emerges from looking at who has been investigated or punished for social media faux pas within the past few years at public institutions, which are subject to the First Amendment. Private institutions sit at different latitudes in terms of faculty free speech but have responded similarly unpredictably -- if overall more harshly than publics -- to their own faculty social media snafus.

Reichman said adjuncts, who lack tenure and the academic freedom protections it affords, are typically the most vulnerable in such situations. Indeed, Fresno State last year assigned Lars Maischak, an adjunct instructor of history, online course development duties for the duration of his contract after it was revealed that he’d tweeted, “To save American democracy, Trump must hang.” He later apologized and said he was not calling for actual violence.

Beyond that, Reichman said, scholars of color and women seem to be the most vulnerable to possible disciplinary action. But that could also be because they’re more vulnerable to the kind of public scrutiny to which institutions feel pressured to respond, he said.

Exceptions challenge every analysis. Steven Salaita, who is of Arab descent, controversially lost a promised job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2014 for the way he criticized Israel on Twitter. Yet the university insisted that he hadn’t technically been hired yet.

Joy Karega, who is black, lost her assistant professorship in rhetoric and composition studies at Oberlin College in 2016 for conspiracy-charged Facebook posts about Israel. And while a share of the faculty initially defended her, they remained silent after Oberlin announced her dismissal. A faculty body also was involved in that decision, meeting the AAUP’s standard for termination due to lack of professional fitness.

In another example, George Ciccariello-Maher, a former associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University, who is white, was put on leave -- for his own safety, according to Drexel -- after a series of controversial tweets about race and politics. But in December he said he was resigning of his own accord.

Laats, at Binghamton, also said there’s no apparent rhyme or reason as to what will get professors in real trouble and what won’t -- except what riles up the public and donors, in particular.

And the Jarrar case is proving to be too good to resist, he said, citing Rod Dreher’s recent commentary in The American Conservative (Dreher has played a role in “outing” professors for their politics, including Tommy Curry, a professor of philosophy at the Texas A&M University, who has been physically threatened for past comments about race and violence.)

Saying he didn’t believe Jarrar deserved to be fired for her tweets about Bush, Dreher wrote, “Boy, is she ever a poster child for left-wing academic privilege and arrogance.” So if the university fires her for “pranking the crisis hotline, I won’t be sorry,” he added.

Resisting 'Call-Out Culture?'

Writing in The Atlantic, the journalist Conor Friedersdorf proposed his own kind of radical idea: What if everyone just resisted the “call-out culture” that’s exploded with social media and ignored the speech of those with whom they disagree? He based his idea, in part, on the idea that everyone who criticized Jarrar helped amplify her message. 

"I reject the logic that Americans should associate the brands of employers with the very worst thing pronounced by any of their workers, as if doing so advances social justice rather than fueling mob pile-ons and reactionary backlashes,” he wrote. “And I increasingly value those who possess the virtue of forbearance.”

David French wrote something similar in the National Review. "Leave the trolls alone. Let the radicals rant," he said. "Then, rebut the bad speech with better speech, or -- sometimes better yet -- rebut it with silence. Does anyone really care what Randa Jarrar thinks of Barbara Bush? Or is she now mainly useful as a foil, as clickbait, as the latest pawn in the culture war? I think we know the answer."

Put far less eloquently, the message seems to be, “Professors are going to say bad things. They don’t all have to become national news stories.” (Yes, Inside Higher Ed is a national news outlet. Irony noted.)

Reichman said he understood the argument but didn’t agree, because professors under attack need support. And it’s true that scores of professors have faced death threats in recent months for their public utterances.

Jarrar appears to at least have the support of her faculty union. Diane Blair, a professor of communication at Fresno State and president of the campus chapter of the California Faculty Association, said Monday via email that Jarrar was speaking “to a matter of public concern from her own personal Twitter account. Our [union] supports faculty members' right of free speech in their capacity as individual citizens, and we also expect that any employment decision made by the administration would comply with these First Amendment rights.”

Free speech protections “mean very little if they are only considered when advancing ideas and sentiments that are widely accepted and uncontroversial; the real value comes when there is disagreement and even offense and provocation,” Blair said.

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