On Tuesday evening, Randa Jarrar, a creative-writing professor at California State University at Fresno, wrote a series of insensitive and politically incorrect tweets. The next day, amid national outrage, the school’s provost gave a news conference denouncing Jarrar’s “deeply disrespectful statements,” and telling journalists that the “incident is under review.” The Fresno Bee quoted the school’s president, Joseph Castro: “A professor with tenure does not have blanket protection to say and do what they wish.”
This case shows that threats to free speech on campus are very real. It also shows that, contrary to a great deal of hype, these threats don’t come only, or even primarily, from the left.
Jarrar, who is an award-winning Arab-American writer, got herself in trouble for attacking Barbara Bush, whose death Tuesday occasioned heartfelt bipartisan encomiums. “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal,” Jarrar wrote in a since-deleted tweet. She went on to call the former first lady a “witch” and said she can’t wait for “the rest of her family to fall to their demise.” Her tasteless words became an international story; a Fresno TV station even aired an interview with her ex-husband denouncing her.
I’m not going to defend Jarrar’s tweets. It’s true that, as people celebrate Bush’s extraordinary life, her Marie Antoinette side has gotten lost. (Shortly before her son ordered the invasion of Iraq, she said she didn’t want to waste her “beautiful mind” worrying about “body bags and deaths.”) But it’s indecent to let politics erase everything admirable about a person, especially at the moment of her death. And wishing for the demise of a family – even a family that includes politicians who have done terrible things – is grotesque.
There is, however, no “grotesque” exception to the First Amendment. “Randa Jarrar’s speech is constitutionally protected, and Fresno State cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, discipline her for it,” Ari Cohn of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education told me. “On top of that, the public announcement of an investigation, with clear statements from the university president indicating that he would like to take some kind of serious action against Jarrar, itself can violate the First Amendment.”
Jarrar is far from the first left-wing professor recently to find her career endangered after sparking public indignation. Last year, Lisa Durden, an adjunct professor at Essex County College, was fired after an appearance on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight” in which she mocked white objections to a blacks-only Memorial Day event. “Boo-hoo-hoo,” she said. “You white people are angry because you couldn’t use your ‘white privilege’ card to get invited to the Black Lives Matter’s all-black Memorial Day celebration.”
Also in 2017, Kenneth Storey was fired from the University of Tampa after tweeting that Hurricane Harvey was “instant karma” for Texans who voted Republican. Johnny Eric Williams of Trinity College in Connecticut was put on leave after sharing an article on Facebook arguing that people of color should not save the lives of white people. Lars Maischak, who, like Jarrar, taught at Fresno State, lost his job after Breitbart found a tweet he’d sent calling for Donald Trump’s hanging.
Other leftist professors have had their lives disrupted by the right-wing outrage machine. Last year, Fox News reported on a commencement speech by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor at Princeton, in which she (accurately) described Trump as a “racist, sexist megalomaniac.” Afterward, she received so many threats she felt it necessary to cancel public appearances. Tommy Curry, a philosophy professor at Texas A&M University, needed a police escort after conservatives unearthed a podcast where he talked about the movie “Django Unchained” and the morality of killing white people.
These stories don’t, in general, receive as much coverage as incidents where conservative speakers are censored or harassed. Perhaps that’s because some of the figures targeted by left-wing students – like Christina Hoff Sommers, a critic of contemporary feminism – are mainstream by non-campus standards. Left-wing professors, in general, garner much less much public sympathy; their views often seem outré, particularly when seen through the prism of right-wing caricature.
Besides, while some white men may feel culturally beleaguered, they can often get away with saying things that women and people of color cannot. On Tuesday, around the same time that Jarrar posted her ill-advised tweets, Trump confidant Roger Stone took to Instagram to call Barbara Bush a “nasty drunk,” quoting himself saying she was so soaked with alcohol that, if cremated, “her body would burn for three days!” Stone is, by any measure, a more powerful figure than Jarrar, but she caused by far the bigger backlash.
In comparing left-wing and right-wing transgressions against free speech, there’s a danger of getting into an escalating cycle of whataboutism, in which the silencing of one side becomes an excuse for silencing the other. This is a mistake. Ultimately, if the power of the First Amendment is eroded on college campuses, it’s the people with the least power who have the most to lose.
The uproar around Jarrar shows how easily arguments for speech restrictions can be turned against progressives. Writing to The Fresno Bee, an infuriated alumnus of Fresno State called for her firing: “Hiding behind freedom of speech doesn’t work anymore. Just as professors are fired for making racist or insensitive comments, she should meet the same fate.” To explain why she shouldn’t, people on the left need to rediscover the right to offend.