RESHMI DUTT-BALLERSTADT FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Randa Jarrar is the latest victim of being denied free speech.
Jarrar is a Muslim American award winning writer and a tenured English professor at Fresno State University. Her mother is Egyptian and her father is Palestinian. Instead of eulogizing Barbara Bush, she tweeted on April 17 that, "Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who along with her husband, raised a war criminal."
Due to her unapologetic tweets, the right wing public wants her fired. The administration at Fresno State wants her disciplined and is investigating her tweets.
Everything she said in her brief tweet is factually correct.
Shortly before the commencement of the invasion of Iraq, Barbara Bush made the following remark on national television:
Why should we hear about body bags, and deaths, and how many, what day it's gonna happen, and how many this or what do you suppose? Or, I mean, it's, it's not relevant. So, why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?
The interview was conducted by Diane Sawyer in Houston just hours before President George W. Bush delivered a televised ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to step down from power and leave Iraq or else face US-led military action. The conversation aired the following morning, March 18, 2003.
Barbara Bush also weighed in on domestic affairs. On September 5, 2005, right after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, massive displacements followed. While thousands sought refuge in the Houston Astrodome, the mother of the president appeared on a public radio show, in which she said:
What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.
A majority of those displaced by Hurricane Katrina were thousands of low-income African Americans.
"As people celebrate Bush's extraordinary life," wrote Michelle Goldberg, a New York Times opinion columnist, "[Barbara Bush's] Marie Antoinette side has gotten lost."
It is precisely this Marie Antoinette side of Barbara Bush that Jarrar pointed out.
Laila Lalami, a novelist and Los Angeles Times book critic, tweeted in support of Jarrar’s tweets: "In calling Barbara Bush 'a racist,' @randajarrar said bluntly what newspaper obituaries disguised when they wrote that Mrs. Bush was 'never shy about expressing her views,' or that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, her 'candor got her into trouble.'"
It is no surprise that Jarrar's tweet agitated the right wing, which actively rallies for the "free speech" rights of white nationalists like Richard Spencer, and yet, they cannot tolerate the free speech rights of those that are non-white Americans. Thousands of these far-right supporters, white nationalists and internet trolls first made vitriolic threats against Jarrar on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms, and then called and emailed Fresno State University's president and demanded that the university fire Professor Jarrar.
In response, Jarrar tweeted again: "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," she wrote. "GO BULLDOGS!"
Jarrar's tweet this time was much more strategic. She emphasized her American citizenship and hence her right to free speech by drawing attention to her status as an American professor. By doing so, she has reminded these conservatives that many Muslims like her are also citizens of the United States and hence protected by their First Amendment right to free speech.
On April 17, Fresno State University President Joseph Castro released a statement about the event. "A professor with tenure does not have blanket protection to say and do what they wish," Castro said. "We are all held accountable for our actions."
While Castro is correct in pointing out that neither free speech nor tenure gives one any "blanket protection" to make any statements, it is unclear what statement Jarrar made for which she ought to be held accountable.
Is her statement incorrect that Barbara Bush was a racist?
Is her statement incorrect that George W. Bush is a war criminal?
Is her statement incorrect that she is an American professor?
Is her statement incorrect that she is tenured?
Is her statement incorrect that she has a right to free speech?
Is her statement incorrect that because of her status as a tenured professor and the protection of academic freedom that comes with tenure, she cannot be fired?
And what is her "action" here for which she should be held accountable? In fact, if there is any action here that is worth noting, it is that she has reminded us about the US-led illegal war in Iraq under George W. Bush that lasted more than a decade and killed more than half a million Iraqi citizens.
In 2012, The Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission convicted George W. Bush as a war criminal. According to the report published in the Foreign Policy Journal, "The trial lasted a week and at the end of the week-long hearing, the five-panel tribunal unanimously delivered guilty verdicts against Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their key legal advisors who were all convicted as war criminals for torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment."
In the trial, the judges "heard harrowing witness accounts from victims of torture who suffered at the hands of US soldiers and contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan." The report included "testimony from British man Moazzam Begg, an ex-Guantánamo detainee and Iraqi woman Jameelah Abbas Hameedi who was tortured in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison."
While what Jarrar tweeted is not false, what appears to be the issue here according to some critics is that she "flaunted" her tenure and her job protection at a time when the system of tenure is under severe attack by the right. Yet the irrefutable fact is tenure comes with certain protections. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), "A tenured appointment is an indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances such as financial exigency and program discontinuation."
One of the greatest protections tenure provides is one's right to academic freedom. Jarrar's tweet that has generated so much controversy is extramural utterance and it is protected under academic freedom. Extramural utterances, according to the AAUP, allows a faculty the freedom "to address the larger community with regard to any matter of social, political, economic, or other interest, without institutional discipline or restraint is an aspect of academic freedom unique to the United States."
Jarrar is also an employee of the government, and hence she is also protected by the First Amendment right to free speech.
Besides, Jarrar did not lie. She just expressed her dissenting opinion on Twitter.
Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt is professor of English and co-coordinates the Gender Studies Program at Linfield College. She is the author of The Postcolonial Citizen: The Intellectual Migrant and her articles have appeared in Inside Higher Ed and various other publications. Her most recent articles at CounterPunch are On Being the "Right Kind of Brown" and When Free Speech Dismantles Diversity Initiatives.