State school system accused of ‘glaring hypocrisy’ after initially saying Barbara Bush criticism ‘beyond free speech’ but racist frat stunt is protected
When a white student at California State University was caught this month wearing blackface, administrators had a clear message: it was racist, but “protected by free speech”.
Days later, when a professor tweeted that the late Barbara Bush was a “racist”, the university’s tone was different: the faculty member would be investigated for her remarks, which, a campus president said, went “beyond free speech”.
The divergent responses have provided a stark illustration of what some critics say is a double standard that has emerged in the fraught campus free speech debates of recent years. That is, in the face of conservative outrage over controversial leftwing views, colleges are quick to condemn and censor. But when racism, hate speech and pro-fascist views emerge, university presidents regularly declare their unwavering commitment to free speech rights – no matter the content.
The scandals have erupted at a time when US campuses have become the flashpoint for debates over the first amendment, anti-fascist organizing and social justice, with some far-right commentators raising their profiles by arguing that liberal universities are “silencing” them. Critics on the left have argued that the opposite is true – and that the parallel stories in California’s state school system reveal uneven punishments for provocative speech.
Last week, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, part of the state university system, sparked national outrage when a photo emerged of a fraternity member in blackface, leading the university’s president, Jeffrey Armstrong, to tell a local newspaper the student would not be expelled, because the act was “very, very likely protected by free speech and freedom of expression”.
Then on Wednesday, Randa Jarrar, a Muslim American writer and professor at the university’s Fresno campus, launched a fresh round of negative headlines after tweeting that Bush, the former first lady who recently died, was an “amazing racist” who “raised a war criminal”. Amid viral stories on rightwing sites Breitbart and Fox News, the university president, Joseph Castro, slammed her comments as “disrespectful” and “beyond free speech”, adding: “A professor with tenure does not have blanket protection to say and do what they wish.”
“The glaring hypocrisy between these two stories and the universities’ reaction to both is outrageous and unfortunately typical,” said Liz Jackson, staff attorney with Palestine Legal, a group that has fought universities over discrimination and censorship.
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In California, which prides itself on being the birthplace of the 1960s free speech movement, universities have defended the rights of some of hateful far-right provocateurs to speak, such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter, while condemning the anti-fascist activists who launch protests aimed at shutting them down.
There are also numerous recent examples of campus leaders clamping down on controversial progressive views. In 2016, the University of California, Berkeley, temporarily suspended a course dedicated to studying Palestine “through the lens of settler colonialism” in the face of backlash from pro-Israel groups. A Students for Justice in Palestine group also faced disciplinary probation after protesting at an event featuring Israeli veterans, and Fresno canceled a Middle East studies professorship allegedly due to rightwing pressure.
“These same schools make these high-minded statements in defense of free speech when they are under social media attack by white supremacists,” Jackson said.
“Someone calls Barbara Bush a racist and suddenly that is outside of the bounds of free speech,” added James Anderson, an editor at It’s Going Down, an anti-fascist website that has documented campus protests. “But when people on the right are attacking people of color and the poor, then all of the sudden, this is a fundamental aspect of our society.”
Provocative criticisms of Trump and white supremacy have also cost professors their jobs. In Fresno, the history lecturer Lars Maischak went viral after the Daily Caller and Breitbart wrote about his controversial tweets, including one that said “Trump must hang”, eventually leading him to lose his classes.
Maischak, who is now teaching online classes, has said the tweets to just 28 followers at the time were taken of context and were meant as a remark on the direction of the country, not a call to violence. Still, the university did not back him even as he faced a wave of death threats, he told the Guardian this week: “Administrations are always more concerned with reputation and publicity than with substance.”
Siding with critics in these kinds of cases is “giving aid and comfort to this organized campaign of harassment”, Maischak continued, adding: “It’s important to call out and condemn the attacks and the attackers and their motives.”
Jarrar did not respond to a request for comment. Asked about the Fresno president’s “beyond free speech” remark, a spokesperson said in an email: “He meant that this is not solely an issue of free speech, that it also has to do with respect and compassion.”
But Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the UC Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, said it seemed clear the president was wrongly implying Jarrar’s tweets were not protected speech.
“The logic of that fails. Free speech is often disrespectful,” he said. “To create a distinction between free speech and disrespectful speech cannot hold water.”
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