Fresno State is investigating Tuesday’s incident in which an English professor tweeted that former first lady Barbara Bush was an “amazing racist.” The university’s provost disagreed with the professor’s contention she can’t be fired because of tenure.

At a news conference Wednesday, provost Lynnette Zelezny addressed what she called the “disrespectful” comments by English professor Randa Jarrar on Twitter hours after it was announced Tuesday that former first lady Bush had died at age 92.

“We understand the concern from the community and we are taking this very seriously,” Zelezny said.

In one of her tweets, Jarrar said she is a tenured professor and makes $100,000 a year. “I will never be fired,” Jarrar tweeted.

Asked at the news conference about that tweet, Zelezny said: “To answer the technical question: Can she not be fired? The answer is no.”

The university has not been in contact Wednesday with Jarrar, who is on a leave of absence this semester.

Jarrar has not responded to requests for comment.

University president Joseph Castro was out of town at a meeting, Zelezny said.

Ari Cohn of FIRE, an organization that advocates for free speech on university campuses, said Jarrar’s initial tweet was clearly protected speech under the First Amendment.

Even subsequent tweets in which Jarrar tagged the official Fresno State account and President Joseph Castro do not indicate that she was speaking on behalf of her employer rather than as a private citizen, he said.

Instead he believes she was reacting to the mob that wanted to see her fired, a trend that he said is growing in the last year.

“The desire to see someone fired because they said something you disagree with or was offensive to you is childish and unproductive and it needs to stop,” Cohn said. “It can so easily be turned around on someone you agree with so it’s ultimately self-defeating.”

Last year, Fresno State professor Lars Maischak came under fire for a tweet saying President Donald Trump “must hang.”

Maischak was ultimately reassigned for the next school year. Cohn said if a professor felt a reassignment was a demotion, it could be a violation of their First Amendment rights and a grounds for a lawsuit.

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Fresno State alumna Jasmine Leiva, who tweeted in support of Jarrar, said she thinks it’s awful that the professor is being harassed for her comments.

“People are attacking her for stating something valid,” Leiva said. “It’s the pure vitriol that is usually directed at women of color on public platforms like Twitter.”

Leiva wasn’t a student of Jarrar’s during her time at the university, but met the professor through classmates and the community. She tweeted Tuesday night that Jarrar is a gem, and Fresno State is lucky to have her.

“Dr. Castro said her views and comments are contrary to the core values of the university which values respect and empathy,” Leiva said. “I would like to see those values afforded Professor Jarrar because we value critical thinking as well.”

New York state resident Maria Angelini said Jarrar was once married to Angelini’s brother, and that her comments Tuesday were shocking to her former in-laws.

“It’s disgusting,” Angelini said. “She was not this way when we knew her.”

Angelini learned of the comments when news started to break online. She has not spoken to Jarrar in years.

Blake Zante, president of Fresno State Associated Students, sent a statement Wednesday morning that said Jarrar’s comments did not reflect Fresno State’s values.

“As President of the student body, I will work with the university to ensure that the student voice is heard and that appropriate action is taken,” Zante said.

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(c)2018 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

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