California State University professor Randa Jarrar’s needlessly antagonistic and quite frankly evil attack on First Lady Barbara Bush within hours of her passing has raised a variety of questions about the role of free speech in our society. Is it permissible to discipline someone at work for things they say on their personal time no matter how awful they may be?
On Monday, I suggested that there is tension between wanting to condemn something that is clearly wrong such as the vitriol spread by Jarrar while simultaneously supporting her personal right to free speech which is indeed the right of every American.
Traditionally, we have seen people on the right defending the free speech of conservative speakers such as Ben Shapiro when they have been threatened before campus events, and we have seen people on the left arguing that he should not be allowed to present. Now, the tables have almost turned. People on the right seem to be more interested in the firing and effective silencing of Jarrar while people on the left have suddenly become champions of freedom of speech.
I also argued on Monday that we have to try to separate our own personal emotions from this issue and view the principle of free speech in and of itself rather than our opinions of certain ways it has been exercised.
Jarrar is an educator. Her job is to teach creative writing to the students of California State University Fresno. This series of ill-advised tweets does not necessarily do anything to impact her ability to fulfill those responsibilities.
As a brief caveat to this, it is quite possible that there is a code of conduct in place that provides expectations for faculty members outside the classroom. I tried to search a little bit on the University website, and I couldn’t find anything, but if there is the expectation that faculty members conduct themselves as professionals both inside and outside the classroom, then there may be a case for violating the job responsibilities of a professor. We all sign on to a certain code of conduct when we are employed, so there is a possibility that her speech would violate some condition of her employment. I do not know enough to speak to that. If someone knows more than I do, message me, and I can update this paragraph.
However, if it is true that she did not violate the code of conduct or any conditions of her employment, then it is very hard to justify firing her as far as I can tell. Unfortunately, the downside of free speech is that we sometimes have to hear things we don’t like, and we have to hear things that are indeed evil. However, the benefits of free speech are incredible and something that we ought not trade away even though it does sometimes make us uncomfortable.
At the end of the day, I think there are plenty of things that can and should be done in the situation. We will talk about that on Friday. However, it is a very dangerous world we move into if personal speech that does not violate any employer’s code of conduct or interfere with the performance of a particular job is used as a justification for firing an employee from that job.