Editor’s note: This article was submitted by the Central Valley chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild.
On April 17, Fresno State Professor Randa Jarrar posted a series of tweets condemning the late Barbara Bush for “raising a war criminal” and for supporting systemic racism. An overwrought backlash on Twitter ensued.
Some people called on Fresno State to terminate her employment. Fresno State responded with a statement and a news conference, both of which indicated that it intended to review Professor Jarrar’s social media activity.
The Central Valley chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild believes university leaders are missing an opportunity to educate the public about basic free speech principles and the tenets of academic freedom.
Public universities are distinct from other types of work environments. While an insurance company or bank may demand employees follow specific speech restrictions when they are off the job, public universities operate with a much broader set of rules for faculty.
They do so because, historically, institutions of higher education did terminate faculty for expressing unpopular and offensive ideas. For instance, in the early 1900s, professors were fired for publicly supporting unions, and in the 1950s administrators fired faculty with alleged communist ties.
Academic professionals understood the chilling effect on intellectual inquiry this kind of censorship had on education.
If faculty are afraid to express ideas counter to prevailing norms, if they fear being associated with unpopular causes, then universities become sites of indoctrination rather than places of innovation.
The American Association of University Professors has responded to such threats to the free exchange of ideas by developing a robust set of principles to guide free expression in and outside of the classroom, including the following: “a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates unfitness for his or her position.”
People might find Professor Jarrar’s posts offensive, but they certainly don’t indicate she is unfit to teach creative writing.
The Supreme Court has been clear about free speech protections for professors, holding that “a state cannot condition public employment on a basis that infringes the employee’s constitutionally protected interest in freedom of expression.”
Furthermore, “The classroom is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’ The Nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth ‘out of a multitude of tongues’, (rather) than through any kind of authoritative selection.”
There is no question the Constitution protects Professor Jarrar from being penalized for her commentary.
Professor Jarrar is speaking on a matter of public concern. The ensuing firestorm, while it might bring negative publicity for Fresno State from right-wing politicos, has not affected the university’s mission—the delivery of quality education.
Accordingly, Fresno State cannot and should not try to discipline or restrain her civil liberties for her speech on a Twitter platform, outside of her work duties, on her personal time.