California State University Randa Jarrar is facing calls for her termination after she appeared to celebrate the death of former First Lady Barbara Bush. A petition calls for the “Immediate termination of Professor Randa Jarrar for racism and inflammatory comments regarding a former First Lady of the United States, Barbara Bush.” Jarrar’s comments were disgraceful and hateful, but there remains a question of the free speech rights of teachers and professors in their private lives.
Jarrar called Bush “an amazing racist” and said she was happy that “the witch is dead” not long after her passing.
The school put her under investigation and leave over her postings. She responded with defiance and bravado to critics, saying “I work as a tenured professor. I make 100K a year doing that. I will never be fired. I will always have people wanting to hear what I have to say.” (The school later noted that Jarrar’s salary is less than $100,000).
I cannot imagine what possessed Jarrar to say such vile things but this was on her social media account. As we have previously discussed (including the recent controversies involving an Oregon professor and a Drexel professor), there remains an uncertain line in what language is protected for teachers in their private lives. The incident also raises what some faculty have complained is a double or at least uncertain standard. We have previously discussed controversies at the University of California and Boston University, where there has been criticism of a double standard, even in the face of criminal conduct. There were also such incident at the University of London involving Bahar Mustafa as well as one involving a University of Pennsylvania professor. For example, we previously discussed the controversy surrounding Trinity College Professor Johnny Williams and his posts against white people, including an inflammatory reference to people considered bigots and how we should “Let Them. F**king Die.” As I am mentioned in the earlier post, I did not believe that Williams should have been punished for his postings as a matter of free speech and academic freedom. The College reached the same conclusion but the question remains whether the College will take a similar principled position for academics espousing such views about other races.
Just as some of us have opposed speech limits and regulation for students, the same protections should extend to faculty. Jarrar’s view of a historical figure does not have bearing on her status as an academic. If the university believes that academics should be placed on leave and investigated, the faculty and students deserve a clear standard as to what personal views and positions will not be tolerated outside of the university.
Many of us find Jarrar’s comments offensive, but there are many such views expressed across the political and social spectrums that are unpopular or disturbing. As an academic institution, Fresno State has a core responsibility for protection of free speech rights for its faculty and students alike. By placing Jarrar on leave and putting her under investigation, it creates a chilling effect of all academics in expressing their views outside of the school. For a school for professes “diversity” as one of its goals, diversity of opinion should also be included in their noble mission.