Yesterday, officials at Fresno State University convened a press conference to announce the initiation of what they promised would be a “long” investigation into the tweets of Professor Randa Jarrar following the death of former First Lady Barbara Bush. Meanwhile, Fresno State president Joseph Castro took to local television to condemn the tweets as “not just a free speech issue,” but one of “common decency and respect,” which he views as “what a university is about.” When asked whether termination of the tenured professor was an option, Castro responded that “all options are on the table,” a threat he also made on a Fresno-area radio show. Speaking to The Fresno Bee, Castro added: “This was beyond free speech. This was disrespectful.”
Today, a coalition of civil liberties organizations — the ACLU of Northern California, Defending Rights & Dissent, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, National Coalition Against Censorship, PEN America, Project Censored, and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression — sent a letter to Castro reminding him that there is no First Amendment exception for “disrespectful” speech. We explain in the letter, as FIRE did yesterday, that the First Amendment restricts the disciplinary consequences that a public university — a government actor bound by the First Amendment — may impose on a professor for speech expressed in her private capacity on matters of public concern, which undoubtedly include the Bush family and the Iraq War.
As the Supreme Court once opined in another case arising out of California:
The constitutional right of free expression is powerful medicine in a society as diverse and populous as ours. It is designed and intended to remove governmental restraints from the arena of public discussion, putting the decision as to what views shall be voiced largely into the hands of each of us, in the hope that use of such freedom will ultimately produce a more capable citizenry and more perfect polity and in the belief that no other approach would comport with the premise of individual dignity and choice upon which our political system rests. . . .
To many, the immediate consequence of this freedom may often appear to be only verbal tumult, discord, and even offensive utterance. These are, however, within established limits, in truth necessary side effects of the broader enduring values which the process of open debate permits us to achieve. That the air may at times seem filled with verbal cacophony is, in this sense not a sign of weakness but of strength.
Here is the letter, which explains how the First Amendment applies to Fresno State: