Randa Jarrar, a creative-writing professor at Fresno State University, called the late Barbara Bush an "amazing racist" on Twitter and reaped a right-wing whirlwind
Nowadays when you hear about intolerance for free speech on college campuses, the speaker coming in for the silencing treatment is somewhere to the right of center on the political spectrum and the muzzlers hail from the left. Not so this week, which saw a shrill tweetstorm from a university professor, followed by a prolonged series of calls for her head to be mounted on a pike at the school’s gates.
The brouhaha was triggered by the death of Barbara Bush, who perished from congestive heart failure on April 17, at the enviable old age of 92. As obit writers dusted off their canned encomiums and misty remembrances to the matronly, pearl-swaddled Bush family “enforcer” flooded social media, Randa Jarrar, a novelist and tenured professor of English on leave from Fresno State University, took to her own keyboard.
“Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal,” she tweeted not long after Bush’s passing was announced. “Fuck outta here with your nice words.”
It was the “Call me Ishmael” of a veritable Moby-Dick of a Twitter tirade, a five-hour barrage during which the eccentric academic doubled, tripled, and quadrupled down on her loathing for the Bush clan and, for good measure, gave the virtual middle finger to the swarm of detractors who called her out (and then some) for daring to speak ill of the dead.
“PSA: either you are against these pieces of shit and their genocidal ways or you’re part of the problem,” Jarrar elaborated. “That’s actually how simple this is. I’m happy the witch is dead. Can’t wait for the rest of her family to fall to their demise the way 1.5 million Iraqis have.”
Jarrar’s background contains clues as to why she’d take such a dim view of the Bushes. Born in Chicago, she’s an Arab American whose bio on the Penguin Random House website states that she “grew up in Kuwait and Egypt, and moved back to the U.S. at thirteen.” According to a profile on the website of the Institute for Middle East Understanding, Jarrar is the child of an Egyptian-Greek mother and Palestinian father; she studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and earned an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas at Austin and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. Jarrar’s personal website includes a pageful of praise for her first book, the Arab-American coming-of-age novel A Map of Home and her debut short-story collection, Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, the latter of which a Los Angeles Times reviewer lauded last year as “sharp and irreverent, sometimes even unapologetically crude.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Jarrar’s tantrum reaped a whirlwind of abuse — tweets calling her “Miss Piggy,” a “nasty be’atch,” and worse — and suggestions that Fresno State fire her.
Before making her account private late in the evening, Jarrar gave as good as she got, going so far as to invite her adversaries to take their complaints to Fresno State president Joseph Castro. “[S]weetie i work as a tenured professor,” she taunted. “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. even you are one of them! <3”
The online outrage over Jarrar’s opinionating prompted university president Castro to issue a statement that night via the school’s own Twitter account:
“On behalf of Fresno State, I extend my deepest condolences to the Bush family on the loss of our former First Lady, Barbara Bush.
“We share the deep concerns expressed by others over the personal comments made today by Professor Randa Jarrar, a professor in the English Department at Fresno State. Her statements were made as a private citizen, not as a representative of Fresno State.
“Professor Jarrar’s expressed personal views and commentary are obviously contrary to the core values of our University, which include respect and empathy for individuals with divergent points of view, and a sincere commitment to mutual understanding and progress.”
— Fresno State (@Fresno_State) April 18, 2018
The next day, Fresno State provost Lynette Zelezny held a press conference to address l’affaire Jarrar, telling reporters that the school was taking the situation “very seriously” and that “the incident is under review.” Zelezny noted that Jarrar wasn’t teaching any courses this semester because she had previously requested a leave of absence.
One reporter asked whether Jarrar had been correct when she tweeted that as a tenured professor, she cannot be fired. Zelezny said this was incorrect, that there were certain procedures that have to be followed but that there are “situations where tenured faculty can be fired.”
The Daily Wire gleefully pounced on that tidbit, calling it a “reality check” for Jarrar, while another right-leaning outlet, Fox News, exulted, “Barbara Bush-bashing professor can be fired despite tenure.”
Fresno State appears to be bending to the pressure.
In an interview Thursday with a reporter from Fresno’s ABC affiliate, Castro condemned Jarrar’s remarks, stating, “This wasn’t just a free-speech issue,” and adding, “just because a person has tenure doesn’t mean they can do or say whatever they wish.”
Asked if the university was looking to suspend, terminate, or reprimand Jarrar, Castro replied, “All options are on the table.”
Of course, as Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), correctly observes in a post on the nonprofit’s website, the university neither can (legally) nor should (ethically) punish Jarrar for her expressing her private points of view, because “public universities are government actors bound by the First Amendment.”
Steinbaugh notes that employees of public universities enjoy broad free-speech rights:
“The law is well-established that employees of government institutions like [a public university] retain a First Amendment right to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern and may not be disciplined or retaliated against for their constitutionally protected expression unless the government employer demonstrates that the expression hindered “the effective and efficient fulfillment of its responsibilities to the public.” Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 150 (1983); Pickering v. Bd. of Ed., 391 U.S. 563 (1968).”
In response to Castro’s suggestion that Jarrar could be sacked or otherwise disciplined, FIRE, the ACLU of Northern California, and other advocacy groups coauthored a letter advising the university president that Jarrar’s speech is “protected by the First Amendment and the free speech clause of the California Constitution.” The letter called on Fresno State to immediately “end its investigation of Jarrar,” because the probe “impermissibly chills the expressive rights of faculty.”
Others have come to Jarrar’s defense.
Novelist Laila Lalami tweeted that “[i]n calling Barbara Bush ‘a racist,’ @randajarrar said bluntly what newspaper obituaries disguised when they wrote that Mrs. Bush was ‘never shy about expressing her views,’ or that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, her ‘candor got her into trouble.'”
In calling Barbara Bush "a racist," @randajarrar said bluntly what newspaper obituaries disguised when they wrote that Mrs. Bush was "never shy about expressing her views," or that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, her "candor got her into trouble."
— Laila Lalami (@LailaLalami) April 19, 2018
Wrote Twitter user Jean Chen Ho, a writer pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Southern California: “Hey remember when Barbara Bush said on the radio that the people displaced by Hurricane Katrina were already ‘underprivileged anyway’ so the evacuation camp in the Astrodome was ‘working very well for them’? I do. Power to @randajarrar for accurately describing Bush as a racist.”
And Reason.com contributing editor Robby Soave called out the “hypocrisy on the right” over Jarrar’s anti-Bush diatribe. Allowing that the “Can’t wait for the rest of her family to fall to their demise the way 1.5 million Iraqis have” bit was a “loathsome thing to say,” Soave went on to call out the Daily Wire in particular:
“It is incredibly hypocritical for The Daily Wire to encourage a university to fire a professor for saying something nasty and politically incorrect,” wrote Soave. “In the past, [Daily Wire-founder and editor-in-chief Ben] Shapiro has rightly called out universities for catering to easily offended students and disinviting controversial speakers. Shapiro himself has occasionally faced angry campus mobs who wish to censor him. But if the offending party is a far-left professor and the offended party is conservatives everywhere, PC censorship is suddenly just fine?”
(Shapiro eventually did chime in with an opinion piece in which he called Jarrar’s outburst “gross” and “atrocious” but conceded that “dumping her over a nasty tweet about Barbara Bush is beyond the scope of the First Amendment.”)
All that said, one element of Jarrar’s tweetfest might provide grounds for her employer to discipline her.
In response to an antagonist who tweeted out her office telephone number, Jarrar shot back that she’d never activated that line. She provided another phone number — which turned out to be that of a crisis hotline at Arizona State University.
In his cogent analysis on the free-speech blog Popehat.com, Ken White wrote that “to justify firing someone like Professor Jarrar, a state school would need to demonstrate that her speech caused rather substantial disruption of education.”
In that regard, White asserted, “Professor Jarrar may have made it easy for them” by posting the ASU crisis line as if it were her own phone number.
And that’s no joke. According to a story in the Arizona Republic, the ASU hotline, which typically receives about five calls per week, was getting more than ten times that number per hour on the day after Jarrar posted its phone number. The story said the school asserted that “it doesn’t believe any people who needed the phone service were affected.”
Still, according to White, “Causing [a] school’s suicide hotline to be flooded with troll phone calls presents a very arguable case for substantial disruption, depending on the evidence.”
Added White: “If you think that this structure creates an incentive to react disruptively to speech, in order to supply a basis for a professor to be fired, you’d be right. If you think that schools might lie about the amount of disruption, you’d be right.”
His conclusion: “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. However, her tweet directing people to [a] suicide hotline presents a substantially stronger case for disciplinary action.”
Update April 25, 2018: In a significant win for freedom of speech, Fresno State President Joseph Castro issued a statement late Tuesday, saying that the university had concluded its review of Jarrar’s Tweets, and found that they were protected by the First Amendment.
The statement reads, in part:
“[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.”
In an interview with thecut.com that ran just before Castro’s decision was made public, Jarrar defended her Tweets regarding late, former First Lady, insisting that she had a moral obligation to make her views known.
“I felt compelled to speak up because I want people to remember history. I want people to know that our country’s actions don’t just disappear; they have real, negative consequences,” she explained. “If we want a better future, we have to confront our past.”