Dear Commons Community,
Yesterday, much of the nation was mourning the death of former first lady and former first mother, Barbara Bush. The wife of President George H.W. Bush and mother of President George W. Bush was being remembered as a steadying and firm influence on her family and especially her spouse and son while they were in office. Randa Jarrar, a professor of English at California State University at Fresno sparked outrage yesterday by tweeting that Mrs. Bush was an “amazing racist” who raised a “war criminal.” There were emotional calls for her dismissal especially by fellow tweeters. As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education:
“Randa Jarrar, a tenured professor who is on leave this semester, wrote that she would never be fired because she has tenure and free-speech rights. She encouraged anyone who objected to contact the university’s president. They did, in droves.
The president, Joseph I. Castro, issued a statement offering condolences to the Bush family on the former first lady’s death and saying Jarrar was commenting 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,” Castro wrote.
His statement drew an angry backlash from some people who questioned why he didn’t condemn Jarrar’s remarks more forcefully.
Screen shots of Jarrar’s comments were captured and shared on Twitter before she made her account private, with a note that she is on leave from Fresno State and the opinions are her own. In one, she wrote “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal.”
In another, Jarrar, who teaches creative writing to both undergraduate and graduate students, wrote that she was “happy that the witch is dead.” Later she added, “If you’d like to know what it’s like to be an Arab American Muslim American woman with some clout online expressing an opinion, look at the racists going crazy in my mentions right now.”
Jarrar, who did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday, began an hours-long Twitter rant within an hour of the announcement that Bush, 92, had died. When irate readers demanded that she be fired, Jarrar’s response, according to widely circulated screen shots, was “LOL! Let me help you. You should tag my president @JosephCastro. What I love about being an American professor is my right to free speech, and what I love about Fresno State is that I always feel protected and at home here,” she wrote. “GO BULLDOGS!”
Jarrar went on to taunt readers who had objected, according to reposted screen shots, saying that she worked as a tenured professor making $100,000 a year and that people will always want to hear what she has to say.
Jarrar also supplied a phone number for people to call her, but it was instead a suicide hotline. An operator there said she had been flooded with calls.
Her English-department profile refers to her as an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and translator who grew up in Kuwait and Egypt and moved to the United States after the Gulf War. Jarrar was born in Chicago to an Egyptian-Greek mother and a Palestinian father, according to a 2014 profile on the Institute for Middle East Understanding’s website.
Her books include A Map of Home, a collection of stories depicting the lives of Arab women, and Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, described on her website as “a collection … featuring journalists and kids and queers and pregnant girls and birds who are arrested for spying.”
Jarrar’s writings also include an opinion piece published on Salon in 2014 titled, “Why I Can’t Stand White Belly-Dancers,” in which she accused such women of cultural appropriation.
The Chronicle also raised a question as to whether her comments could lead to her dismissal.
A blog run by Ken White, a criminal-defense lawyer in Los Angeles, said three factors play into whether her comments are protected speech.
First, was she speaking on a matter of public interest? Yes, he concluded, the death of a public official falls into that category.
Second, was she speaking as a private citizen or as part of her job duties? Since she was on leave and Twitter isn’t part of her job, the answer, he determined, would be as a private citizen.
And third, can her employer show that her speech was so disruptive to the workplace that it interfered with its orderly business? That would be the toughest for Fresno State to prove, White said.
His assessment: “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.”
As a reminder, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”