Is free speech possible without job security?

When an English professor at California State University at Fresno tweets from a personal account while on leave that the late Barbara Bush was an “amazing racist” who raised a “war criminal,” there was no doubt that Fresno’s president would get embroiled in the latest salvo in the free speech wars. Despite the president’s remarks, however, Randa Jarrar is safe because it would cost the university a great deal of money to rid itself of her:

Henry Reichman, a professor emeritus of history at California State University-East Bay, chairs the association’s committee on academic freedom and tenure.

“There is little doubt in my mind that the professor’s tweets, while arguably ill-considered and quite foolish, are protected speech,” he wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “They were made in her capacity as a citizen and as such constitute what the AAUP calls extramural expression.” Such statements, he said, “constitute grounds for discipline only if they clearly demonstrate a lack of fitness for one’s position.”

Because she is protected by both tenure and a collective-bargaining agreement, Jarrar enjoys significant due-process protections, Reichman said. He called Castro’s statement that “all options” are on the table “both inaccurate and irresponsible.”

“While it is true that tenure does not permit faculty members to say or do whatever they want, it does clearly protect the specific statements that this faculty member made, however much the administration or anyone else, myself included, may find them offensive,” Reichman said.

The thought of an employer, even a public university like Fresno, punishing an employee for political speech made on her own time chills me. We shouldn’t need tenure to be sentient human beings who can exist apart from our jobs; this, to me, is the conclusion I make from this episode. Some of us are lucky to have job security.

But Randa Jarrar probably pissed off colleagues too: thanks to Jarrar’s tweeting the number of a suicide hotline at Arizona State University (to my mind the crassest thing she did), imagine the workshops the dean will demand the faculty sign up for.

Free speech as right ‘to protect businesses that wish to discriminate’

While Puerto Ricans roast, North Korean threaten war, and GOP senators duck for cover as the scraps of yet another bill designed to consign the poor and old to the rubbish heap falls in flames around them, it’s good to see National Review, consigned to irrelevance after Donald Trump’s election, and its former ideological mates in the conservative commentariat lecture NFL players on their responsibilities as employees. But conservatives going back to Edmund Burke have a horror of a populace challenging their ideas about privilege and the state’s responsibility to its citizens; every response is an echo, a flashback to Marie Antoinette and the guillotine.

The convulsions happening on college campuses as Richard Spencer, Milo, and other far right firebrands are invited or pay for events present other opportunities for conservatives to troll liberals. Adam Serwer explains the ways in which conservatives in power have suppressed speech they find repellant. This is why the baker case before the Supreme Court (Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission) matters, Serwer writes:

It is true that many liberals and members of the left exert social pressure on ideas they find abhorrent, as do conservatives. For those who find themselves at the center of such disputes, the experience can be painful or even scary, but they are also an inevitable part of a society where people are allowed to express themselves—some ideas can and should fall into disfavor, even if they can be expressed without fear of state punishment. Even as they portray liberals and leftists as weak snowflakes, conservative complaints about political correctness often reflect acute sensitivity to liberal or left-wing criticism—criticism that when they can, they try to silence through opprobrium.

That’s not to say that such conservatives are opposed to free speech entirely—when it comes to discrimination in the public square, their defense of the principle is unwavering. Before the Supreme Court is the case of a Christian baker who refused to serve gay and lesbian customers, discrimination outlawed by Colorado state law. In that brief, the Trump administration subtly indicated that, far from simply being a matter of religious views on marriage, “free speech” should be understood to protect businesses that wish to discriminate.

I’m reminded of Corey Robin’s definition of conservatism: a mode of counter-revolutionary practice.

The commencement address grind

As temperatures climb and boredom with criticizing the Trump administration increases, fellow liberals turn to a favorite hobby: self-immolation. Picking on students walking out of Vice President Mike Pence’s commencement address at Notre Dame is the latest example. Students are easy targets. They allow the old to abandon common sense, disregard empathy, and wipe their own memories of youth, for besides mayonnaise in food and chardonnay there is no custom to which the old person clings more zealously than sanctimony.

Until a couple years ago I believed in a ruthless literalism regarding free speech. If the Constitution said, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech,,” it meant that no government body, federal or state, can infringe on our ability to speek freely. Public universities needn’t accept every guest who wants to speak; my understanding of the law is that the universities subsequently cannot restrict or review what the invitee will say. Moreover, protecting the speech of these invitees doesn’t require the rapt attention of an audience.

Those aging scolds have surely forgotten what a grind commencenent addresses are. At mine, the late Camilo Jose Cela raged like a summer storm about “las tonterias de la juventud.” I’ll give the Nobel laureate his due: he had no patience for self-empowerment banalities. Neither do the graduates. All they want is their fake diplomas and a handshake with the president, and I’ll even doubt this point – it’s at their parents’ insistence. This takes me back to Mike Pence. A commenter at Lawyers, Guns and Money got it right:

I am somewhat sympathetic to arguments that speakers invited onto campus by a student group should have the opportunity to speak without excessive heckling. (This doesn’t apply to someone like Milo whose presence on campus is a threat to students.) I am absolutely not sympathetic to the argument that students who have gone into significant debt and worked hard to earn their degrees should welcome being forced to listen to a speech by someone who wants to destroy their livelihoods and their communities.

Although written before the Notre Dame speech, the point stands. Pence, speaking at a private university where its administration could have done whatever the hell it wanted about accepting or rescinding invitations, signed bills as governor that endangered women and sought to make lives harder for gays and lesbians in Indiana, some of whom were in the audience. If they had jeered, I can understand an argument against disrepecting a guest. That’s not what happened. A commencement address is not a debate; they could not respond to him even if Pence stuck to the banalities mentioned above. Students owed him no courtesy, nor would exposure to the former governor of their state have nourished their intellects. Pence got to speak; his freedom of speech was impinged neither by Notre Dame nor the students. Those who walked out responded no differently than if they’d walked out of Alien: Covenant.

No laughing at justice

If the details of this story prove true, it would prove a prosecution very much in character. It involves Desiree Fairooz of Code Pink:

Katherine Coronado of the U.S. Capitol Police was in her second week on the job when she was assigned to keep watch over Sessions’ confirmation hearing on Jan. 10. Coronado was involved in the arrest of Desiree Fairooz, an activist affiliated with the group Code Pink, after Fairooz laughed when Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said that Sessions’ record of “treating all Americans equally under the law is clear and well-documented.” (Sessions had been rejected as a federal judge in the 1980s because of concerns about his views on race, and back when he was still a Democrat, Shelby himself actually ran an ad suggesting Sessions had called the Ku Klux Klan “good ole boys.”)

Fairooz was seated in the back of the room, and her laugh did not interrupt Shelby’s introductory speech. But, according to the government, the laugh amounted to willful “disorderly and disruptive conduct” intended to “impede, disrupt, and disturb the orderly conduct” of congressional proceedings. The government also charged her with a separate misdemeanor for allegedly parading, demonstrating or picketing within a Capitol, evidently for her actions after she was being escorted from the room.

As German Lopez of VOX notes:

These details are all salient for the legal case, but it’s important not to lose sight of the big picture here: The federal government is literally prosecuting someone for laughing. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Justice Department — which Sessions now leads as attorney general — is doing the prosecuting when the laughter was directed at its leader.

After the Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers, I understand why the Trumpists would wanna go the next step. And Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is so easy to laugh.