Students protest the firing of Fresno State English professor and poet Robert Mezey along Shaw Avenue. Photo courtesy of the Fresno Free College Foundation

Fresno State College 50 Years Later

By Dr. Alex Vavoulis

 

The year 2018 marks 50 years since the Mezey case, which resulted in Shaw Avenue filling with students protesting the firing of Poet Robert Mezey from the Department of English. The Jarrar case (involving Fresno State English professor Randa Jarrar) has some similarities to the Mezey case, but there are differences.

Mezey was invited to participate in a seminar on campus called “Panel on Pot,” which included campus personnel and community members, including the district attorney and a representative from the Sheriff’s Office.

Mezey was asked to give his views on marijuana laws. In part, Mezey said, “Marijuana laws were bad laws and people should not obey bad laws.”

His words, reported in the Fresno Bee, caused a violent reaction from campus people and the community, including a Superior Court judge. Fresno State President Frederic Ness was confronted with demands that Mezey be fired, even from California politicians. Students came to the defense of Mezey on the basis of academic freedom, academic due process and constitutional protection of free speech. Nevertheless, Ness surrendered to the pressure and fired Mezey.

With the Jarrar case, we are experiencing déjà vu. But this case is different because the legal department of the Chancellor’s Office learned something important from history: Citizens are protected by the Constitution of the United States.

It is easy for people to say fire Mezey, but we know what suffering, under the presidency of Karl Falk, the family of Mezey endured. This also led to the firing of other faculty and administrators under President Norman Baxter. Some people are quick to want to fire faculty who don’t agree 100% with their narrow worldview.

The Mezey family was uprooted and saved when a faculty organization, formed out of a student organization and named the Fresno Free College Foundation, supported Mezey in his court case and supplied monetary support for his family.

Mezey was hired by Pomona College and stayed there until he retired. His daughter, Naomi Mezey, is now an attorney in Washington, D.C. Moreover, marijuana laws have been undergoing change throughout the country. In California, people are standing in line to get a license to dispense marijuana.

The firing of professors because of their right to free speech has consequences and prevents creative people from making positive changes to society. In academia, there is a deep respect for free inquiry and the free expression of ideas; tenure is not a privilege but rather a right because it is an assurance to society that professors and teachers will not surrender these responsibilities.

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Dr. Alex Vavoulis is professor emeritus in chemistry at Fresno State. He was president of the Fresno Free College Foundation (1972–1992) and founder of KFCF Radio in Fresno. Contact him at alexvavoulis@yahoo.com.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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