Recently, Randa Jarrar has come under fire for intemperate comments she made on Twitter following the death of former First Lady Barbara Bush. The author, a creative writing professor at Fresno State, referred to Bush as “an amazing racist” and expressed happiness about her passing, among other comments. A coordinated and aggressive pile-on by right-wing media figures such as Joe Walsh and Dana Loesch, along with innumerable Twitter trolls, led to the professor being hounded from public view–with her professional future unclear. (The university said it is “reviewing the tenured professor’s position.”)
We at Tropics of Meta recognize that political and cultural debates can become extremely heated, especially in these times, and Twitter provides a uniquely transparent medium for people to express strong opinions and emotions. (Sometimes those comments are ones that the Twitterer might not have expressed the same way, given more time and consideration.) Professor Jarrar’s comments may be upsetting to some, but we believe that we–both as Americans and simply as people with jobs, who have to work for a living–have a right to say things that might be controversial. One’s career and livelihood should not be taken away from them because they hold an unpopular view. Of course, speech that promotes racism or other hatreds ought to be condemned by the broader community, and speech that directly threatens harm or violence is beyond the pale.
But we do not believe Jarrar’s comments meet either standard. What we do believe in strongly is the cardinal value of academic freedom. This episode is only the latest in a long, determined, and well-funded campaign to silence scholars and destroy careers, led by right-wing activists such as David Horowitz and other interested parties over decades. (Consider the case of Steven Salaita, who was essentially forced out of academia.) Universities–and especially college leaders such as presidents and provosts–should stand strongly in favor of the intellectual independence and autonomy that makes controversial and critical expression possible. More than that, we believe that it is not a matter of academic freedom alone, but the right of all people not to have their employment contingent on whether a boss or manager–or Twitter troll or university donor, for that matter–agrees with their cultural, political, or religious views.
Some may agree, disagree, or fall somewhere else entirely on the issue; were these tweets so completely unacceptable as to warrant reprimand? Or does Jarrar deserve a more full-throated defense than we’ve offered here? Let us know what you think in the comments.
You can find our 2017 review of Randa Jarrar’s work here.