Professor’s anti-Barbara Bush Twitter tirade draws ire
Just an hour after the death of Barbara Bush was announced, an English professor at California State University, Fresno, wrote a series of disparaging tweets about the former First Lady, calling her an “amazing racist.” The tweet storm quickly went viral and generated backlash from social media users, who called on Fresno State to fire her. After an investigation, the university announced she would not be punished for her comments, since it felt she had made them as a private citizen, not as a representative of the school.
Randa Jarrar is an award-winning novelist and a tenured professor of creative writing in the Fresno State English department. Her work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Salon.com, and Guernica. She was on leave during the spring 2018 semester, when she posted a barrage of negative tweets about former First Lady Barbara Bush in the immediate aftermath of her death.
Barbara Bush was the wife of former president George H.W. Bush and mother of former president George W. Bush. She was known for championing the cause of literacy, both while her husband was in the White House and after he left office. She died at the age of 92 in her Houston home on April 17, 2018, after a long struggle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other ailments.
Joseph Castro is president of Fresno State. He was roundly criticized for not taking disciplinary action against Jarrar for her online comments.
On April 17, the Bush family announced that the former First Lady had passed away after electing not to receive further medical care. Just an hour later, Jarrar tweeted that “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal.” She further called Bush a “witch” and said she was dancing “happily on the grave of someone I despise,” according to the Los Angeles Times. She also said she couldn’t wait for the rest of the Bush family to “fall to their demise the way 1.5 million [I]raqis have.”
When critics began reacting angrily on Twitter, Jarrar boasted online of her six-figure salary and said she would “never be fired” from her tenured faculty position. She added, “what I love about being an American professor is my right to free speech, and what I love about Fresno State is that I always feel protected and at home here.” Jarrar tagged Castro in her tweet, emphasizing her confident claim that her job was safe. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, she also provided a phone number in one of her tweets and asked users to air their criticisms by calling it; the supplied number ended up belonging to a student suicide help hotline, which was soon flooded with spam calls.
By the end of the day, Jarrar had set her Twitter account to private, meaning that her content could only be viewed by users she approves. She also changed her Twitter bio to say, “Currently on leave from Fresno State. This is my private account and represents my opinions,” reported The Fresno Bee. The contact page on her website displayed the statement, “I do not read or respond to messages about Barbara Bush” next to a red heart emoji.
Initially, Castro distanced himself from Jarrar’s tweets, saying she had expressed “personal views and commentary” that, while “obviously contrary to the core values of our University,” had been made “as a private citizen, not as a representative of Fresno State,” reported the Fresno State News. According to the Chronicle, Twitter users pushed back against Castro, arguing that Jarrar’s boasting of her salary and tenure demonstrated that her statements were made as a faculty member. The Chronicle also reported that the day after the tweets, “thousands of emails, phone calls, and tweets” opposing Castro’s statement began pouring into the president’s office.
Fresno State president recants, provost announces investigation
At a news conference on April 18, Castro changed tack from his previous statement that Jarrar had commented about Barbara Bush as a private citizen, saying, “A professor with tenure does not have blanket protection to say and do what they wish. We are all held accountable for our actions.” He added, “All options are on the table.” Fresno State Provost Lynnette Zelezny said the university had begun to review Jarrar’s tweets. While she could not discuss the professor’s employment status, Zelezny said, the investigation would involve university lawyers, union representatives, and Jarrar herself. “We very much do want to hear the voices of others — we again want it to be in a climate of respect,” the provost said.
Fresno State announces no disciplinary action against Jarrar
On April 24, Castro announced the results of the investigation into Jarrar’s comments. The statement read, in part, “[W]e have concluded that Professor Jarrar did not violate any CSU or university policies and that she was acting in a private capacity and speaking about a public matter on her personal Twitter account. Her comments, although disgraceful, are protected free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, although Professor Jarrar used tenure to defend her behavior, this private action is an issue of free speech and not related to her job or tenure. Therefore, the university does not have justification to support taking any disciplinary action.”
“Cal State Fresno professor under fire for tweets attacking Barbara Bush,” Los Angeles Times
“How Low Can a Tenured Professor Go on Twitter? Fresno Case Could Be a Test,” The Chronicle of Higher Education
“Professor’s Tweet That Barbara Bush Was an ‘Amazing Racist’ Ignites a Fury,” The Chronicle of Higher Education
“This professor bragged she can’t be fired for bad-mouthing Barbara Bush. She might be right,” The Washington Post
“Professor celebrating Barbara Bush’s death deserves to be fired,” Fox News
“Professor’s tweet about Barbara Bush was ‘beyond free speech,’ Fresno State president says,” The Fresno Bee
“‘Your kids masturbate’ and other provocative lines from Fresno State professor’s talks,” The Fresno Bee
“The Politically Incorrect Randa Jarrar,” The New York Times
“The controversy over a professor’s tweet calling Barbara Bush a racist, explained,” Vox
“President Joseph I. Castro Statement Regarding Faculty Member’s Tweet,” Fresno State News
“After calling Barbara Bush an ‘amazing racist,’ a professor taunts critics: ‘I will never be fired,’” The Washington Post
Randa Jarrar’s personal website
President Joseph I. Castro Letter On Conclusion Of Review Regarding Professor
Prepared by Jesus Rodriguez ‘19
Uploaded April 30, 2018