A couple of weeks ago, Fresno State English professor Randa Jarrar became an Internet sensation after her negative tweets about the late Barbara Bush went viral.
I’m reluctant to repost such ugly behavior, so if you’d like to see the tweets in all of their obnoxious glory, you can do so here.
Many on Twitter called out Jarrar for her tweets, saying Fresno State should fire her because of it.
But exercising one’s free speech is not a fireable offense—nor should it be.
Unfortunately, Fresno State seemed tempted by the idea.
Shortly after the media hullabaloo, Fresno State president Joseph Castro launched an investigation into Jarrar’s conduct. “This was beyond free speech. This was disrespectful,” he said at the time.
Castro’s words set a very dangerous example to the Fresno State community—and the university community at large, where viewpoints that are considered unpopular or “offensive” regularly face discrimination and censorship.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), “Despite the critical importance of free speech on campus, too many universities — in policy and in practice — chill, censor, and punish students’ and faculty members’ expressive activity.”
FIRE’s 2018 Spotlight on Speech Codes reports that just under one-third of the 461 colleges and universities that they surveyed “clearly and substantially prohibit constitutionally protected speech.” While this number is down from recent years, the work cannot stop until freedom of speech is protected on every single campus.
That’s why the ADF Center for Academic Freedom (CAF) exists. CAF works to ensure freedom of speech and association for students and faculty on America's campuses so that everyone can freely participate in the marketplace of ideas without fear of government censorship.
In fact, one of its recent cases concerned another Fresno State professor. The case, Fresno State Students for Life v. Thatcher, involved a public health professor named Gregory Thatcher, who appointed himself free speech police and erased pro-life messages that the Students for Life group on campus had written with chalk on the sidewalk.
Despite the fact that the students informed the professor multiple times that they had permission from the administration to write their messages, he would not be deterred. At one point, he even incorrectly stated that “college campuses are not free speech areas,” while personally erasing one of the pro-life messages.
In response to the CAF lawsuit, Thatcher agreed to pay damages and attorneys’ fees and to undergo two hours of First Amendment training. In addition, a district court issued an order that prohibits him from disrupting future Fresno State Students for Life events.
Now, there may be a lot of people out there who dislike what Randa Jarrar has to say, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have the right to say it. Just as Gregory Thatcher had no business censoring speech he didn’t like, Castro and Fresno State should not censor (or fire) Jarrar just because they (and most of the rest of the world) find her speech offensive.
And thankfully, they’re not going to.
This week, Castro finally announced the results of the investigation. And what do you know, Jarrar’s speech is protected by the Constitution after all!
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.
Castro went on to encourage the university community, and Americans as a whole, to embrace freedom of speech.
Our duty as Americans and as educators is to promote a free exchange of diverse views, even if we disagree with them. At Fresno State, we encourage opinions and ideas to be expressed in a manner that informs, enlightens and educates without being disparaging of others.
Castro’s sentiments about free speech are spot on—this time.
Let’s just hope if there’s ever a next time, and Fresno State’s history with speech indicates there could be, that the administration is quick to use its unwanted publicity for good and decisively affirm freedom of speech. No one should be “investigated” for exercising their First Amendment freedoms—and it’s critical that university administrators model that to the impressionable students they are teaching.
And it’s not just the students. As this unfortunate incident reminds us, all it takes is one tweet, one comment, to set a bad example. The world is watching.