A series of controversial tweets a Cal State Fresno English professor posted Tuesday evening mocking the death of former First Lady Barbara Bush has sparked intense backlash online as well as a university inquiry.
Randa Jarrar, an author and associate professor who teaches creative writing at the school, stirred outrage with tweets she sent within an hour of the announcement that Bush — the wife of President George H.W. Bush and mother of George W. Bush — had died.
“Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal,” Jarrar wrote on Twitter.
“I’m happy the witch is dead. can’t wait for the rest of her family to fall to their demise the way 1.5 million iraqis have. byyyeeeeeeee,” she wrote.
As Twitter users began to criticize her en masse she wrote that she was dancing “happily on the grave of someone I despise. It’s SO FUN.”
As the whirlwind of anger kicked up, Jarrar taunted her critics, bragging about her $100,000 salary as a tenured professor. She also shared the phone number of a suicide hotline at Arizona State University, claiming it was her own number.
She also declared: “I will never be fired.”
University leaders Wednesday pushed back at Jarrar’s comments, which came about a year after another professor at the campus was placed on paid leave after writing on Twitter that President Trump “must hang” to save American democracy.
“A professor with tenure does not have blanket protection to say and do what they wish,” Cal State Fresno President Joseph Castro told the Fresno Bee. “We are all held accountable for our actions.”
“This was beyond free speech. This was disrespectful,” Castro told the newspaper.
Provost Lynnette Zelezny said at a news conference Wednesday that Jarrar has been on leave this semester but is expected to return in the fall. She said that the university was beginning a review of Jarrar’s tweets but could not discuss any aspects of the professor’s employment, calling the issue a personnel matter.
Zelezny said the review would be thorough and would involve the university system’s lawyers, union representatives and Jarrar.
“Does tenure mean that you, technically, cannot be fired? The answer to that is no,” Zelezny said.
“We are a community where we respect diverse opinions and diverse thoughts,” she said. “We very much do want to hear the voices of others — we again want it to be in a climate of respect.”
Jarrar canceled a planned appearance at a literary gathering at Fresno City College set for this weekend and has turned her Twitter feed private. A statement on her website says: “I do not read or respond to messages about Barbara Bush” and concludes with a red heart emoji.
The nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which advocates for free speech rights on college campuses fired back at Cal State Fresno, calling the university’s review of Jarrar’s tweets “unfortunate and unwise.”
“Fresno State correctly acknowledges that Jarrar’s tweets were made as a private citizen. As such, and because they touched upon a matter of public concern, Jarrar’s tweets are unquestionably protected speech under the First Amendment and Fresno State has no power to censor, punish, or terminate Jarrar for them,” wrote Adam Steinbaugh, a commentator for the nonprofit.
Jarrar is the American-born daughter of Palestinian and Egyptian parents, and grew up in the Persian Gulf, in Cairo and on the East Coast. Her 2008 novel “A Map of Home” chronicles the life of a girl growing up between the Middle East and the U.S.
A Los Angeles Times review of her 2017 collection of short stories “Him, Me, Muhammad Ali” called Jarrar’s work “sharp and irreverent, sometimes even unapologetically crude.”
Jarrar referenced 2005 comments Bush made about her son’s administration’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina.
While touring the Houston Astrodome, which was used as a relocation center for New Orleans residents, Bush commented: “Many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them,” she said. The administration defended the remark as a “personal observation” based on her conversations with people who were grateful for the help Texas gave them.