Aug 09, 2020
Fresno State English professor Randa Jarrar sparked controversy when she tweeted hateful messages against former First Lady Barbara Bush hours after her death. Since then, Jarrar has been embroiled in a free speech controversy. (Illustration/Casey Supple.)

Civil rights groups call for investigation into Randa Jarrar to stop

The fallout of the tweets sent out by Fresno State English professor Randa Jarrar has continued nearly one week after the controversy began.

But even as the university plans an investigation into Jarrar’s tweets, several civil rights groups are calling for that investigation to stop.

Not long after the news that former First Lady Barbara Bush died at 92 last Tuesday, Jarrar wrote on Twitter that she was happy Bush had died. Jarrar called Bush a “racist” who raised a “war criminal.”

The responses to those comments were swift. Dozens of people on the social media platform railed against Jarrar and the fact that she taught at Fresno State.

That pressure led to a statement from the university that same evening. University President Dr. Joseph Castro distanced the university from Jarrar and said her comments were made as a private citizen and not as a representative of the university.

At a news conference last Wednesday, Fresno State assessed how it would move forward as the public outcry began to grow.

Jarrar frequently responded to critics that she could not be fired for her tweets against Bush and the way she stated them because she was a tenured professor and therefore protected.

Provost Dr. Lynnette Zelezny was asked by the press if that was the case, and she responded by saying that it wasn’t necessarily so.

Whether or not Jarrar will be disciplined over the Twitter incident is unclear. Several news outlets also reported that she posted a number to a crisis hotline at Arizona State University and passed it off as her own cell phone number.

Zelezny said a university investigation involving the administration, its legal counsel and the California Faculty Association will review the facts in the case. It is unknown if Jarrar has spoken with the university since the online skirmish began.

“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.”

Though the matter seems to be of concern to the university, Jarrar’s comments are being defended. Several civil rights groups in a letter to Castro asked that the university drop its investigation of Jarrar, claiming her speech against the Bush family is protected under the Constitution and there is no legal basis for punishing the professor.

“Fresno State may neither investigate nor punish her for it,” said the civil rights groups, which included the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Fresno State spokeswoman Patti Waid confirmed Castro has seen the letter.

The civil rights groups argued that Jarrar’s comments were on a matter of public interest and said an investigation by Fresno State could also violate the First Amendment. They allege that the university may only be focused on “quelling anger” from those who have put the pressure on the university.

“Fresno State’s response will prove counterproductive or disagreeable,” the letter stated. It continued: the university investigation would only “reward complaints to public university administrators about the speech of any faculty member.”

The civil rights groups expect a response from Castro by Wednesday, April 25. They expect to hear that the administration “will not investigate faculty members for lawfully expressing their views.”

Concerns over academic freedom were also noted in the letter. Last week, Castro issued a letter in which he said he fervently supports academic freedom at the university.

Diane Blair, chair of the CFA chapter at Fresno State and a communications professor, said that tenure is based on academic freedom principles and is meant to advance knowledge – even when it involves sharing controversial ideas.

Blair said it would have been nice to be told by the university that an investigation would take place before Zelezny, who invoked the CFA’s collective bargaining agreement, spoke to the press.

The CFA’s role in any investigation is to ensure that a faculty member’s rights are protected, according to Blair.

“We always have to be careful in these cases to avoid a rush to judgment,” Blair said, speaking in general terms about faculty members criticised or investigated for speech.

On several occasions on Tuesday, Jarrar fought back against demands by critics that she be fired. She touted the rights afforded to her as a professor.

But the pressure may have gotten to Jarrar. She closed off her Twitter content by 10 p.m. but has kept tweeting, according to screenshots posted online.

She had been scheduled to speak at Fresno City College’s LitHop event last Saturday, but pulled out just days before.

Jarrar, who was hired in August 2010, is not teaching her usual creative writing courses this spring due to a preplanned leave, according to Zelezny, but is scheduled to teach at least three courses in the fall.

Several tweets following Jarrar’s Bush comments suggested there were protests being planned at the university – some users even tweeted “#BoycottFresnoState.” But no protests appear to have taken place since the incident.

Still, Zelezny said the university had put additional security measures in place.

“Campus security is very much a priority,” she said.

The Collegian contacted the Fresno State Police Department to see what additional safety measures were implemented. It did not respond by deadline.  

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 Fresno State College Republicans issued their own statement, calling Jarrar’s actions “provocative” and “irresponsible.”

On the other hand, several students took to Twitter to show their support for the university amid the backlash by critics of Jarrar’s comments. They signed their posts with #WeAreFresnoState.

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 was swift, and the U.S. Secret Service was eventually called in to investigate Maischak.

But Maischak was cleared and even granted The Collegian a one-on-one interview in which he stated that he never meant to come across as violent. Maischak was reassigned from the campus and continued conducting research and teaching courses online.

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