By George Leef
We hear so much these days about “hate speech” on campus that it’s almost a shock to find the real thing. Leftists have taken to calling almost any argument against their belief system “hate speech” such that, for example, Christina Hoff Sommers is denounced for hate speech because she does not agree with radical feminists that there is a “rape culture” on most of our college campuses.
But following the death of former First Lady Barbara Bush, we got a dose of true hate speech from a professor at Fresno State University. Randa Jarrar teaches creative writing at the school and took to Twitter to let the world know how she felt about Mrs. Bush. Jarrar wrote that she was “an amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal.” She also let us know that she’s “glad the witch is dead.”
That’s nasty, hateful stuff. It’s the sort of vitriolic speech we so often hear from fringe academics who think that venting their rage is good educational practice.
Fresno State’s president, Joseph Castro, was evidently worried that Jarrar’s tweet would undermine support among conservative alums and (quoted here), said that she had “transcended free speech” because what she said was “disrespectful.”
Disrespectful it certainly was, but it is not the case that all speech by college professors must be respectful. It’s better if they express their views in a polite manner, but free speech implies the liberty to choose your words, whether they’re inoffensive or vicious.
Writing here for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, lawyer Akil Alleyne concludes that action by the university to punish Jarrar would probably fail when challenged in court. He writes, “If Fresno State’s administrators continue their declared investigation into Professor Jarrar’s tweets and conclude it by firing or otherwise punishing her, she will have ample First Amendment grounds—not to mention the perks of academic tenure—on which to challenge that discipline in court.”
Probably heeding the advice of his own counsel, President Castro has decided that the university won’t take any disciplinary action. He is quoted here saying that while Jarrar’s conduct was “insensitive, inappropriate, and an embarrassment to the university,” her tweet did not violate any university policies.
I think that is the right decision, both legally and as a matter of academic freedom. The right response to any speech, including hate speech, is not censorship or punishment, but to respond to it with more speech. That’s the big point of former ACLU president Nadine Strossen’s new book Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship. People might, for example, ask Jarrar what evidence she has that Mrs. Bush ever harbored any racist thoughts, and if she has none, why she would throw around such an offensive term at a deceased person. (That is what people have been doing with respect to Nancy MacLean’s slanderous book on the late James Buchanan, by the way. For example, here is Professor Jason Brennan’s attack on her. She has been squirming to avoid the plain truth that she falsely accused the late Professor James Buchanan of racism.) Whereas punishment tends to create martyrs, full debate is enlightening and usually detrimental to the person who utters nasty and indefensible comments.
And there is another lesson in this incident: Universities (especially those that depend on public funding) ought to be more careful about the people they hire to teach. They should not take public support for granted. As professor Greg Weiner wrote about the Jarrar case, “There are ample prudential reasons to leave Jarrar to her profanities and move on. But those reasons should not be confused with a philosophical justification for liberal learning that commands ongoing support from the paying public.” Much of the taxpaying public already looks askance at what goes on in the name of higher education and their willingness to fund the enterprise is slipping because of educators like Jarrar.
What this case reminds me of is one that broke several years ago when the University of Illinois decided to rescind the offer it had made to Professor Steven Salaita after his tweeting about Israel and Palestine came to light. Fearing future problems with Salaita, university officials exercised their freedom of contract by declining to finalize the agreement the school had reached with him. (For more details, see my piece about the case.)
Fresno State will have to put up with Randa Jarrar now that it has granted her tenure, but its administrators should learn that they should be more circumspect about the people they hire for the faculty. Free speech can cause problems for a school when it’s exercised irresponsibly and disrespectfully. In sum, think twice before hiring hotheads.