The Fresno State Tweet Brawl Has Nothing to do With Tenure

Last week, Randa Jarrar, a professor at Cal State Fresno, tweeted her reaction to Barbara Bush’s death:

As you might expect, this produced a wee bit of backlash. Yesterday, however, Fresno State said it would do nothing about this:

Her comments, although disgraceful, are protected free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, although Professor Jarrar used tenure to defend her behavior, this private action is an issue of free speech and not related to her job or tenure.

This is a key point. Every story I’ve read about this talks about the fact that Jarrar is protected by tenure, and much of the backlash has been about the evils of tenure. Jarrar herself said she would never be fired because she had tenure.

But tenure had nothing to do with it. If she had been a clerk at the DMV, the outcome would have been the same. Public employees generally can’t be fired for things they say in their private lives. Employees of private companies, by contrast, can be fired for any reason at all,¹ including pissing everyone off with meanspirited tweets. This is because the First Amendment applies to the government, not to private actors.

So keep this in mind. Regardless of what you think about Jarrar, the outcome here has nothing to do with tenure.

¹This is not a blanket rule, obviously, and it varies somewhat from state to state. Generally speaking, though, most of us are at-will employees, which means we can be fired if our boss doesn’t like the color of our shoes. The big exception is that you can’t be fired for a specific set of prohibited reasons: age, race, gender, religion, etc.