Death to Free Speech?

Cary Nelson has taken a lot of criticism for defending the free speech of Julio Pino, a Kent State professor who said “Death to Israel” to an Israeli speaker at an extracurricular event on campus. At Minding the Campus, K.C. Johnson attacks Nelson for stating, “Calling out a political slogan during a question period falls well within the speech rights of any member of a university community.” Johnson claims, “few non-academics would consider ‘death to Israel’ a ‘political slogan.’” If calling for the end of a political state isn’t a political slogan, what is it? More importantly, does Johnson actually disagree with Nelson’s defense of free speech? Does Johnson believe that Pino should be punished for saying “Death to Israel”?

Johnson denounces “the absurdity of Nelson’s argument” without ever explaining what’s absurd about free speech. Nelson wasn’t endorsing Pino’s idiotic ideas, and he wasn’t criticizing Kent State president Lester Lefton for disagreeing with Pino. He was criticizing Lefton for declaring that faculty should never call for the destruction of the government of a guest for fear of offending them. Suppose someone called for the destruction of the Soviet Union (which I cheered) or the destruction of the communist People’s Republic of China and its replacement with a free, democratic state (in fact, that someone is me). If I say, “Death to China,” would Johnson argue that I should be free to say this, even though it offended Chinese guests? If so, then Johnson agrees with me and Nelson. If not, then he endorses Lefton’s philosophy of censorship which is anathema to a true university.

One response

  1. Without presuming to comment on the case at hand, we need to note that one does not have an unqualified right to shout anything whatever during someone’s presentation. Shouting during a presentation can, in some cases, prevent the speaker from exercising her or his right to speak. It’s a matter of degree. One person shouting one slogan may be acceptable. If ten other people join in, there is a presumption that they are shouting the speaker down. Any and all of the participants could be properly subjected to punishment.

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