clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Conservatives keep sparking “free speech” battles. When a Muslim professor tweeted about racism, guess what happened?

Randa Jarrar’s case is a reminder that when a woman of color speaks out on her views about race, she faces unique dangers.

English professor Randa Jarrar, whose tweet calling Barbara Bush a racist led to calls for her firing, pictured in January 2018.
Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

The story of Randa Jarrar, a professor at California State University Fresno, is different from the one we’ve seen play out again and again recently. Instead of a white, male conservative professor or guest speaker saying something controversial, leading to a social media feud over whether conservative speech is under attack, Jarrar is a liberal woman of color who became the object of attack for criticizing a conservative.

Unlike the men (and sometimes women) who have challenged “political correctness” and been deemed brave by the right for their unique intellectual courage, Jarrar is a Muslim woman who called out Barbara Bush, a beloved conservative figure who had just died, for racism. In response, her mentions quickly filled up with racist and sexist harassment, her university hinted at a possible firing, and the media coverage became bizarrely personal. Jarrar said she also received death threats.

Some conservatives and libertarians have since stepped in to defend Jarrar on free speech grounds. And on April 24, Fresno State announced that it would not, in fact, be disciplining Jarrar. But her case is a reminder that when a woman of color speaks out on her views about race, she faces unique dangers that aren’t shared by white pundits who take controversial positions. And her speech isn’t always seen as courageous — even though women of color who call out prejudice, especially online, are virtually guaranteed to receive racist and sexist abuse.

The furor started on Twitter

After Jarrar tweeted that the recently deceased Barbara Bush “was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal,” her mentions filled up with racist comments and insults about her weight. One Twitter user opined that she should be “fired because she’s a bitch.”

On April 17, Jarrar, whose Twitter account is now private, tweeted, “If you’d like to know what it’s like to be an arab american muslim american woman with some clout online expressing an opinion, look at the racists going crazy in my mentions right now.” The replies to that tweet were full of sexist slurs and racist remarks.

The response was indicative of something women, and especially women of color, deal with every day — when they voice their opinions online, they’re liable to receive torrents of racist and sexist hate.

A Pew survey from 2017 offers one measure of this problem — while men were more likely to experience some forms of online harassment, like name-calling, women were more likely to experience sexual harassment, and people of color were more likely than white people to experience harassment based on their race. Meanwhile, a full 78 percent of women in a 2016 Amnesty International survey felt they couldn’t express an opinion on Twitter without receiving threats or abuse.

As the Pew data shows, men do get harassed online. But Jarrar’s experience is a reminder that to speak on the internet as a woman, and especially as a woman of color, often means being attacked not just for your views but for who you are.

University officials spoke out against her

When the social media firestorm around Jarrar’s tweet reached the door of Cal State Fresno, where she teaches, officials were outspoken. “A professor with tenure does not have blanket protection to say and do what they wish,” said university president Joseph Castro. “We are all held accountable for our actions.”

“This was beyond free speech,” he added. “This was disrespectful.”

At a news conference, university provost Lynnette Zelezny explained that a tenured professor can be fired.

While it’s true that tenure isn’t a blanket protection, universities have often been loath to dismiss tenured professors, even those with a history of racism or anti-Semitism. Tenure provides professors with an added layer of job security and is intended in part to protect their academic freedom, as attorney Ken White pointed out to the Fresno Bee. The intent is to allow professors to do controversial work without fear of being fired by their universities.

In 2006, Northwestern University electrical engineering professor Arthur Butz praised Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then the president of Iran, for saying the Holocaust was a myth. Butz is a longtime Holocaust denier, having published a book called The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry in 1976.

After the Ahmadinejad comments, Northwestern’s president said in a statement that “Butz has made clear that his opinions are his own and at no time has he discussed those views in class or made them part of his class curriculum. Therefore, we cannot take action based on the content of what Butz says regarding the Holocaust — however odious it may be — without undermining the vital principle of intellectual freedom that all academic institutions serve to protect.”

Butz still teaches at Northwestern, though students have called for his firing as recently as last year.

In August 2017, University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Amy Wax co-wrote an op-ed extolling the values of the mid-20th century and criticizing “the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks” and “the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants.” She then told the Penn student newspaper that Anglo-Protestant cultural norms were superior to others and that “everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.” Later that year, she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class, and rarely, rarely, in the top half.”

That comment in particular drew condemnation from students and alumni, and Penn announced earlier this year that Wax would be barred from teaching first-year law school courses but would continue teaching electives. Even this action caused an emeritus member of the university’s board of trustees to resign in protest, writing that in preventing Wax from teaching first-year students, “you are suppressing what is crucial to the liberal educational project: open, robust and critical debate over differing views of important social issues.”

Universities have also kept on professors who have committed violent crimes — like the UT Austin professor who pleaded guilty to strangling his then-girlfriend until she “saw stars” — or who have been accused of sexual misconduct. Last year, a social work graduate student at USC reported that her adviser had made an unwanted advance and then told her not to report it — a university investigation supported her allegation, but the school suspended the professor without pay for a semester, rather than firing him.

It’s impossible to know for sure whether Jarrar’s identity, or the fact that she criticized a conservative matriarch, factored into her university’s vigorous response to her comments. In a new statement issued on April 19, Castro was more measured, saying: “People will have different opinions on the proper balance between freedom of expression and the responsibility to exercise it in a way that promotes constructive dialogue. We are constantly striving to get that balance right.”

And on April 24, Castro announced that the university would not be taking disciplinary action against Jarrar after all. “Professor Jarrar’s conduct was insensitive, inappropriate and an embarrassment to the university,” he said in a statement. However, “we 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.”

But the president’s swift and forceful initial response certainly felt unusual in a climate where university officials are often reticent and hyper-careful in discussions of personnel matters, especially when politics are involved. The president’s April 19 statement about “different opinions” and “balance” was more typical of official university responses on controversial matters — his earlier allegation that Jarrar’s “disrespectful” comments went “beyond free speech” felt like a departure from the tightly circumscribed norms of academic institutions, especially because he was talking about a university employee.

Media coverage was strikingly personal

Even the prospect of Jarrar’s firing, though, seemed to produce some glee in media circles. Media outlets quickly seized on the Fresno State provost’s comment that a tenured professor can be fired. Headlines hyped the possibility. At the Visalia Times-Delta: “Tenure may not save professor who called Barbara Bush an ‘amazing racist.’” At Fox News: “Fresno State says Barbara Bush-bashing professor can be fired despite tenure.”

Meanwhile, coverage of Jarrar’s tweets went in an oddly personal direction. Networks scrambled to interview her ex-husband, who accused her of lying about him and said he was disgusted by her tweets, and her former sister-in-law, who said, “she was not this way when we knew her.” And as the writer V.V. Ganeshananthan noted, other media coverage about Jarrar used loaded language, as when Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Herman Wong of the Washington Post wrote that critics “were upset at what they viewed as her incivility about a woman widely regarded as genteel.”

“I *wonder* who gets to be genteel!” Ganeshananthan tweeted.

As Jarrar’s story has unfolded, a number of conservatives and libertarians have argued that her speech should be protected, even if they may not like it. Conservative columnist Ben Shapiro initially tweeted that Jarrar would not have to see Barbara Bush “when she’s in heaven and you’re burning in hell.” But on April 18, he wrote at the Daily Wire, where he is editor-in-chief, that “Jarrar has a right to speak, and setting the precedent that professors should be fired for saying gross, atrocious or impolitic things seems like a serious problem.”

At the Washington Post, Megan McArdle wrote that “Jarrar has behaved like an ill-bred adolescent with an underdeveloped vocabulary, an overdeveloped ego and an entirely atrophied sense of empathy” but that “Fresno State is wrong to investigate her private speech, and conservatives who are tempted to support the school should think again.”

Infantilizing language aside, it’s encouraging to see conservative and libertarian writers defending speech of which they disapprove, especially because much of the recent rhetoric around free speech on college campuses has tended to assume that it’s conservative speech that’s most at risk.

Still, the personal and bigoted vitriol Jarrar has gotten — and her university’s initial willingness to respond to that vitriol by punishing her — are a reminder that in America, some people’s speech is more protected than others’.

One recent darling of conservative free speech advocates is writer Kevin Williamson, who was fired from the Atlantic after his comments about hanging women for abortions became too numerous to ignore. In response to a recent Wall Street Journal essay by Williamson (titled “When the Twitter Mob Came for Me”), Commentary associate editor Noah Rothman tweeted that Williamson’s experience had helped clarify “what true courage in writing really is. The kind with personal and professional consequences.”

Jarrar’s experience is a reminder that progressives, not just conservatives, routinely face such consequences, and that they’re often magnified for people from marginalized groups. And for women and especially women of color, speaking out online requires true courage every single day.