“Professor Jarrar’s expressed personal views and commentary are obviously contrary to the core values of our University”
A Fresno State professor named Randa Jarrar commented on Twitter following the death of former first lady Barbara Bush, “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal. [expletive] outta here with your nice words.”
Jarrar then followed up with this tweet:
Fresno State University President Joseph I. Castro issued a statement which the school shared on Twitter, claiming that Jarrar made the statement as an individual and not as a school representative:
— Fresno State (@Fresno_State) April 18, 2018
Fresno State appears to be taking the situation seriously, and even the school’s chief academic officer issued a statement. Here’s a video report from the local ABC News affiliate:
Many people are justifiably angry about Jarrar’s comments with some calling for her firing.
Not so fast, says Robby Soave of Reason:
Fresno State Shouldn’t Fire a Professor for Saying She’s Glad Barbara Bush Died
In response to death of former First Lady Barbara Bush, a professor of English at Fresno State University tweeted, “I’m happy the witch is dead.” Now a whole lot of people—including some occasional critics of political-correctness-run-amok on campus—think the university should fire her.
The professor, Randa Jarrar, made the comments shortly after Bush’s death at the age of 92. “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal,” wrote Jarrar. “Fuck outta here with your nice words.” She later said she was “happy” Bush had died and couldn’t wait for the rest of her family to “fall to their demise the way 1.5 million Iraqis have.”
Obviously, that’s a loathsome thing to say. You can express opposition to the Iraq war without literally celebrating somebody’s death.
Nevertheless, Jarrar’s comments are constitutionally protected speech. Fresno State is a public university, and its professors enjoy broad free speech protections.
Adam Steinbaugh of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) concurs:
Fresno State University won’t — and cannot — punish professor for Barbara Bush tweets
Fresno State correctly acknowledges that Jarrar’s tweets were made as a private citizen. As such, and because they touched upon a matter of public concern, Jarrar’s tweets are unquestionably protected speech under the First Amendment and Fresno State has no power to censor, punish, or terminate Jarrar for them.
It’s often said that the First Amendment doesn’t protect a speaker from the consequences of his words. That’s true to a certain extent. One who says something that offends others will often face consequences of some sort, whether it’s caustic criticism from people he offended, loss of private sector job opportunities, loss of membership in voluntary associations, and so on. But the First Amendment places limits on what consequences a government actor may impose in response to speech.
As we’ve explained in response to another professor terminated for her public commentary, public universities are government actors bound by the First Amendment:
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).
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