This week, Professor Randa Jarrar of Fresno State made a horrific ass of herself publicly — she tweeted in the wake of Barbara Bush’s death, “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal. F*** outta here with your nice words.” She then followed up that display of solid judgment by sending out a tweet of the Arizona State 24-hour emergency crisis line.
The university has stated that Jarrar’s comments were made as a private citizen, that she has been on leave for the semester, and that Jarrar’s tenure doesn’t mean she can’t be fired.
Now, the tweet featuring the Arizona State emergency line may be fireable — it’s arguably a breach of actual university policy. But her tweet about Barbara Bush falls squarely within the purview of free speech. It’s gross. It’s atrocious. But Jarrar has a right to speak, and setting the precedent that professors should be fired for saying gross, atrocious or impolitic things seems like a serious problem.
The governing legal standard for punishing a professor on campus is from the Supreme Court case Pickering v. Board of Education (1968); in that case, the Supreme Court declared that they had to weigh the state’s “interest in promoting the efficiency of its employees’ public services” against whether the employee was speaking as a citizen rather than an employee, and whether the employee was speaking on a “matter of public concern.” Both the Ninth Circuit and Fourth Circuit have supported broad rights for professors to speak on controversial issues. Ken White, aka Popehat, got it exactly right regarding the Ninth Circuit case, as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) points out:
[H]ad the Ninth Circuit ruled the other way, then the state could fire professors at will if it didn’t like, for instance, the stance that a history professor took about a historical event, or a political science professor took about a political dispute, or any professor took about an issue of academic governance on a committee.
If we’re going to call for freedom of expression on public university campuses, Jarrar’s speech is protected. That doesn’t mean tenure should exist in the first place, or that if her teaching is compromised by her politics, that she’s immune to being fired — if she’s a crappy teacher, she should go for that reason. But dumping her over a nasty tweet about Barbara Bush is beyond the scope of the First Amendment.