Education

Professor's tweet about Barbara Bush was 'beyond free speech,' Fresno State president says

Fresno State news conference about professor’s Barbara Bush ‘racist’ tweet

Lynnette Zelezny, Fresno State provost, leads a news conference about English professor Randa Jarrar's controversial Twitter post on Wednesday, April 18, 2018.
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Lynnette Zelezny, Fresno State provost, leads a news conference about English professor Randa Jarrar's controversial Twitter post on Wednesday, April 18, 2018.

All options are on the table in dealing with the Fresno State professor who called Barbara Bush "an amazing racist" shortly after the former first lady died, university president Joseph Castro said Wednesday.

"A professor with tenure does not have blanket protection to say and do what they wish," he said. "We are all held accountable for our actions."

Castro declined to comment specifically on how the university may handle Randa Jarrar's case, citing personnel matters. But he did say the next steps for the university include reviewing all the facts, as well as the faculty's collective bargaining agreement.

Within an hour of the official announcement that Bush, the wife of former president George H.W. Bush, died Tuesday at age 92., Jarrar took to social media to call the former first lady an “amazing racist” who raised a “war criminal.” Jarrar also expressed no concern that she could be fired or reprimanded for her outspokenness.

“Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal,” Jarrar wrote on Twitter. “F--- outta here with your nice words.”

Castro said he shares the shock and horror many people expressed after Jarrar, an associate professor in the English department, tweeted about Bush.

"This was beyond free speech. This was disrespectful," Castro said.

The backlash on Twitter was immense on Tuesday night, with thousands of comments pouring in to condemn Jarrar for what she had said. Jarrar eventually made her social media accounts private.

Castro said he is grateful Jarrar chose to change her settings, and that her tweets are ultimately a way to educate the campus on social media use.

"One set of tweets, as horrible as they were, do not define us," Castro said.

Jarrar did not returned requests for comment by phone and email. But she did return to Twitter Wednesday to thank her supporters.

"I'm still fabulous, thanks for checking in. Love to all of you who have sent support," she wrote.

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A tweet from Jarrar on Wednesday indicates that she is out of the country. Twitter

In one of her tweets on Tuesday night, Jarrar said she is a tenured professor and makes $100,000 a year.

“I will never be fired,” Jarrar tweeted.

At a news conference Wednesday, Provost Lynnette Zelezny also disagreed with the professor's contention she can't be fired because of tenure.

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Asked at the news conference about that tweet, Zelezny said: "Does tenure mean that you, technically, cannot be fired? The answer to that is no."

The university had not been in contact with Jarrar, who is on a leave of absence this semester.

Protected speech?

Ari Cohn of FIRE, an organization that advocates for free speech on university campuses, said Jarrar’s initial tweet was protected speech under the First Amendment.

Even subsequent tweets in which Jarrar tagged the official Fresno State account do not indicate that she was speaking on behalf of her employer instead of as a private citizen, he said.

Instead, he believes she was reacting to the mob that wanted to see her fired, a trend that he said is growing in the last year.

“The desire to see someone fired because they said something you disagree with or was offensive to you is childish and unproductive and it needs to stop,” Cohn said. “It can so easily be turned around on someone you agree with so it's ultimately self-defeating.”

Last year, Fresno State professor Lars Maischak came under fire for a tweet saying President Donald Trump “must hang."

Maischak was ultimately reassigned for the next school year.

Cohn said if a professor felt a reassignment was a demotion, it could be a violation of their First Amendment rights and grounds for a lawsuit.

Abre' Conner, staff attorney for ACLU of Northern California, said Jarrar's statements are part of her First Amendment rights to express a political opinion.

"It appears the professor was involved in protected speech on her own time," Conner said. "If Fresno State administrators are reviewing her based on this political speech, that is troubling."

Hotline number

Jarrar also tweeted a phone number Tuesday, claiming it was her own. But the number actually led to an Arizona State University's suicide hotline, a fact that drew additional vitriol online.

Lori Prentice, who runs an in-home homeless ministry in Madera County, said tweeting out the number was like a "kick in the teeth" for those who work with individuals in crisis.

"There is a strong probability that someone who finally found the courage to contact the suicide hotline couldn't get through due to Jarrar's caustic misdirection," Prentice said.

Prentice said her daughter had been considering attending Fresno State, but her decision will depend on how the university handles Jarrar's case.

An Arizona State University official who asked not to be identified said the tweet did lead to unusually high call volume.

However, the call center brought on more staff, and he does not think anyone with a legitimate call did not get through.

The staff realized what must have happened when people calling were all angry at the same person.

Mixed reactions

Fresno State alumna Jasmine Leiva, who tweeted in support of Jarrar, said she thinks it's awful that the professor is being harassed for her comments.

"People are attacking her for stating something valid," Leiva said. "It's the pure vitriol that is usually directed at women of color on public platforms like Twitter."

Leiva wasn't a student of Jarrar's during her time at the university, but met the professor through classmates and the community. She tweeted Tuesday night that Jarrar is "a gem," and that Fresno State is lucky to have her.

"Dr. Castro said her views and comments are contrary to the core values of the university which values respect and empathy," Leiva said. "I would like to see those values afforded Professor Jarrar because we value critical thinking as well."

Blake Zante, president of Fresno State Associated Students, said that said Jarrar's comments did not reflect Fresno State's values.

"As president of the student body, I will work with the university to ensure that the student voice is heard and that appropriate action is taken," Zante said.

Maria Angelini, Jarrar's former sister in law, said her comments were shocking to her former in-laws.

"She was not this way when we knew her," Angelini said.

Angelini learned of the comments when news started to break online. She has not spoken to Jarrar in years.

Jarrar was born in Chicago and grew up in Kuwait and Egypt. In addition to her teaching, she has been involved in the local literary scene.

She was scheduled to appear at this weekend's LitHop, but told the event's organizers and Fresno City College that she will not be a participant.

"Fresno City College and LitHop 2018 support her decision to withdraw," a statement from Fresno City College read.

Aleksandra Appleton, 559-341-3747, @aleksappleton
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