Fresno State may adopt behavior guidelines. Some say the university is policing speech

‘I am the first official kill’ of far-right writers, Fresno State professor says

In an August 2017 interview with the Collegian, Fresno State's student newspaper, professor Lars Maischak talks about the reaction to a tweet he posted that read, in part, that "Trump must hang."
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In an August 2017 interview with the Collegian, Fresno State's student newspaper, professor Lars Maischak talks about the reaction to a tweet he posted that read, in part, that "Trump must hang."

Fresno State may adopt a set of guidelines for the behavior of its faculty and staff, a move that has drawn criticism from those who see it as a means to police speech.

The “Principles of Community” are still in draft form, but a final version will be announced at the university’s Spring Assembly in January. The principles include five sections, including one titled “We are accountable” that states faculty will “hold ourselves and our colleagues accountable for behaviors and outcomes.”

Kathleen Scott, director of organizational excellence and administrative operations at the university, said the policies are not meant to give the university leverage in dealing with controversial professors, such as Lars Maischak and Randa Jarrar, both of whom gained national notoriety for their tweets.

“Since they represent guidelines hopefully embraced by the general campus community, there are no disciplinary ramifications related to non-adherence,” Scott said.

Scott said the principles have been in the works since 2017, when faculty and staff submitted more than 2,600 responses to an online poll, the results of which were used to inform the themes of the document.

Lars Maischak
Lars Maischak

Maischak, a history lecturer who drew ire in 2017 when he tweeted that President Donald Trump “must hang,” said the message to faculty members is that if they speak their minds, they do so at their own peril.

“The university wants to police the expression of content, for the most part to dampen criticism of the present government,” Maischak said. “The idea behind civility policing is that somehow it’s more important to talk about the manner of thoughts than the substance of them.”

Maischak also said the principles are vague, lacking a clear definition for the consequences of violating them or an outline for any kind of appeals process. Scott said the principles are not meant to be a policy to enforce, but rather “principles that will inform and inspire the day-to-day practices of everyone who works at Fresno State.”

Maischak now teaches online classes at Fresno State, and told the Collegian campus newspaper in August that he had been investigated and cleared by the FBI. In an interview with The Bee this week, Maischak said he believes Castro intervened to keep him out of the classroom for the spring semester. Spokeswoman Lisa Boyles said online and classroom assignments are “based upon meeting the academic needs of our students as determined by our academic administrators.”

He was the first of two Fresno State professor to face national outrage for their tweets. Earlier this year, English professor Randa Jarrar tweeted that Barbara Bush was an “amazing racist” on the day of the former first lady’s death, drawing another firestorm of media attention.

Maischak wrote in an op-ed published in The Bee that Castro had failed to defend academic freedom against a fascist threat in both Maischak’s and Jarrar’s situations.

“I stand by what I wrote, that Castro served as parade marshal for the lynch mob,” Maischak said. “The powers that be have indicated that they will side with the outrage machine and play into far-right politics.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Higher Education, which has supported both Maischak and Jarrar in the past, said the university must take care to communicate that the policies are goals to which the community aspires, and not rules.

“If members of the community are left with the impression that these are rules, not just goals, that may have a chilling effect on speech,” said Adam B. Steinbaugh, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program. “In the same lines, if people are angered by a student or faculty member’s speech, they may point to this statement and demand that the university do something to enforce it.”

Fresno State hosted several community forums in the wake of Jarrar’s tweets, one for the general public in which attendees demanded that Castro fire the professor. Castro came out forcefully against the content of Jarrar’s tweets, but told audience members at the forum that the speech was ultimately protected.

Steinbaugh added:

“One of the stated principles is that the community “clearly communicate expectations,” he said. “That’s advice that the university should take by expressly asserting that these are goals, not a source of enforceable rules.”

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Aleksandra Appleton covers schools for the Fresno Bee. She grew up in Fresno before attending UC San Diego and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.