At a news conference, Fresno State assesses how to act on professor’s fiery tweets

Fresno State English professor Randa Jarrar is not in the clear after she made fiery comments against former First Lady Barbara Bush on Twitter Tuesday.

At a news conference Wednesday, Fresno State was still assessing how it would move forward with addressing the public outcry after Jarrar called Bush an “amazing racist” who “raised a war criminal.” Those comments led to dozens of replies from critics and from Jarrar.

Fresno State Provost Lynette Zelezny speaks to the press on Wednesday, April 18, 2018 about comments made by an English professor over the death of former First Lady Barbara Bush. (Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado)

Jarrar’s comments that she could not be fired for her tweets because she is a tenured professor were countered Wednesday by Zelezny, who told the press that in fact a professor can be fired in spite of their tenure. But whether or not Jarrar will be fired or disciplined, Zelezny said, will depend on an investigation that will review the facts in the case. She said a strict process is in place to investigate these kind of issues. So far the university has not spoken directly with Jarrar, Zelezny said.

“Fresno State will allow applicable law, policy and requirements of the faculty collective bargaining agreement to unfold,” Zelezny said. “We underscore that we are in motion and that we are taking this matter very seriously.”

Zelezny said the goal of the investigation is to follow the strict policies in place to handle the personnel investigation.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education weighed in on the issue. The organization’s mission is to “defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities,” according to their website. On whether Fresno State can punish Jarrar, FIRE said confidently that Fresno State will not, and shouldn’t, discipline Jarrar.

“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,” wrote Adam Steinbaugh for FIRE. He added, “Jarrar spoke on her personal Twitter account about a matter of public interest. That her speech offended some or many is not a lawful basis to penalize its expression.”

On several occasions, Jarrar fought back demands by critics that she be fired. She praised herself for being an American professor with free speech rights. According to a biography posted to the 2018 LitHop Festival website, which she was scheduled to headline on April 21, Jarrar is a Palestinian-American who has written books and essays on Arab-American coming of age. In 2010, she was named “one of the most gifted writers of Arab origin under the age of 40,” according to the website.

A news release Wednesday afternoon stated that Jarrar had pulled out as the headliner for the LitHop event at Fresno City College.

Randa Jarrar. (Fresno State)

Jarrar, who was hired in August 2010, is not teaching her usual creative writing courses this spring due to a pre-planned leave, according to Zelezny, but she is scheduled to teach in the fall. Zelezny said it is too early to tell if the investigation will affect those courses. According to university course registration records, Jarrar is expected to teach three English courses in the fall.

Jarrar commented on her Twitter account before going private that she had received death threats. Whether or not those will be investigated is unknown. And possible violence or confrontations at the university was also a concern. Several tweets following Jarrar’s Bush comments suggested there were protests being planned at the university — some users even tweeted “#BoycottFresnoState.” But no protests looked to have taken place by noon Wednesday.

Zelezny said the university has additional security measures in place “when we have the spotlight on us,” as in this case. She said Fresno State police Chief David Huerta is working with the university to provide those security measures but she did not elaborate on the specific plans.

“Campus security is vey much a priority,” Zelezny said.

President Joseph Castro, who was in a daylong event in Long Beach Wednesday, issued a statement hours after Jarrar’s tweets began gaining attention Tuesday night. In it, he said her comments were made as a private individual and that they did not reflect the campus’ values. He releaesed a second statement Wednesday, where he said he was “appalled” by the comments made by Jarrar, but defended free speech rights granted by law.

“Under our Constitution, strong differences of opinion are to be expected and their free expression embraced. This is the essence of our democracy,” Castro said.

In a brief statement, Associated Students, Inc. President Blake Zante stood with the university in saying that Jarrar’s controversial comments were made as a private individual and not as a representative of Fresno State. He said in his statement, “we learn that having these conversations with civility and respect can create a better world for future generations.”

The Twitter controversy comes roughly one year after fairly similar outrage was caused by history lecturer Lars Maischak. He tweeted last April that “Trump must hang” to save democracy.

Response to those online messages quickly trickled in and the U.S. Secret Service was eventually called in to investigate Maischak. But Maischak was eventually cleared and even granted The Collegian a one-on-one interview where he stated that he never meant to come across as violent. Maischak was removed from the campus but continued teaching courses online.

This story will be updated.

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