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When It Comes To Free Speech, Who Is Allowed To Say What?


Now it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we check in with interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And today, we want to talk about a couple of issues in the news that might not seem related, but they all get to the heart of a question that is roiling our public life, and that is, who is allowed to say what?

Last Thursday, CNN fired contributor Marc Lamont Hill after he made a speech at the United Nations about Palestinian rights which critics interpreted as anti-Semitic. Also this week, representative-elect Rashida Tlaib is being criticized for saying she supports the BDS movement. Now, that stands for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. And finally, yesterday - and this is the one that I understand people might not think is related but bear with us - comedian Kevin Hart bowed out of hosting the Oscars after anti-gay tweets of his surfaced from 2011.

Joining us to talk about all this - Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios.


PHILIP KLEIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: On the line with us from Los Angeles, journalist and author Jeff Yang.

Welcome back.

JEFF YANG: Thank you.

MARTIN: And Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times is with us from NPR's bureau in New York.

Michelle Goldberg, welcome to you as well.


MARTIN: And, Michelle, I'm going to start with you because you've been writing quite a lot about this, and it addresses a couple of these stories. The column you wrote most recently said that anti-Zionism isn't the same as anti-Semitism. But you are making a bigger point that criticism of the BDS movement on its face isn't anti-Semitism. And what's the difference in your view?

GOLDBERG: Well, I think the idea that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism or is tantamount to anti-Semitism depends on conflating Israel with the Jewish people and treating Israel as the embodiment of the Jewish people. And I just don't think that that's true. And I also don't think that the leaders of Israel think that that's true.

I mean, you constantly see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making alliances of convenience with right-wing nationalists in Europe who come from traditionally anti-Semitic parties. I think he understands that being pro-Israel and pro-Jewish are not equivalent. And I would say the same thing as well. And then I also think that, just given the United States' relationship with Israel, there are many reasons beyond anti-Semitism why Americans would be particularly concerned with that relationship.

MARTIN: OK. And what about the Marc Lamont Hill situation?

GOLDBERG: So I certainly wouldn't defend Marc Lamont Hill being fired. But I also wouldn't defend what he said because that specific phrase about from the river to the sea - there's a reason that that kind of terrifies a lot of people, and that, for a lot of people, they imagine that they're talking about driving the Jews into the sea as opposed to having a binational state for two people.

And, given the fact that I have been - I think that people need to be extremely alert to the dog whistles coming out of this administration from the right, I find it hard to explain away what I think is going to also sound like a dog whistle to a lot of people coming from the left.

MARTIN: Phil, let me go to you. I know that you disagree. Talk more about your point of view.

KLEIN: Well, I think it's very clear to say something - that there is this idea that when people point out the link between anti-Semitism and being anti-Israel, the response is often, oh, well, just because you criticize Israel doesn't mean you're anti-Semitic. And that's true.

However, what we've seen in the past several years is a broadening interpretation of what's seen as acceptable criticism of Israel. You look at - on college campuses, for instance. Attacks against Jews are nine times more likely when there is some sort of BDS group on campus. So there are a lot of anti-Semites out there who are perfectly clear on making the link between Jews and Israel.

MARTIN: But the point that - I think what we're trying to understand here is, in this particular case, I think the criticism of the firing of Marc Lamont Hill is the argument that the conversation is actually being narrowed, and that the - so that's what I'm going to ask you to address.

KLEIN: Yeah. So let's talk about what Marc Lamont Hill actually said because, first of all, I didn't actually call for him to be fired. I did raise the question by saying CNN in the past has fired on-air personalities for off-air statements. So I asked the question of, where does CNN draw the line in terms of what's acceptable and what's not acceptable? In the case of Marc Lamont Hill, the phrase from the river to the sea is eliminationist rhetoric. It quite literally means create a Palestinian state stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, which currently encompasses Israel.

In the same speech, he also said that we can't fetishize nonviolence and sort of said that we have to support resistance. And the problem that we have here is that there is this tendency to other-ize (ph) Israeli Jews. And, somehow, you can say whatever you want. You can talk about eliminating people. Jews in Israel are somehow expendable.

MARTIN: Can I just bring it back to when speech is policed and who gets to make - who gets to police it? And I want to jump to you. Are you ready to participate...

YANG: I do.

MARTIN: ...Here?

YANG: Yeah.

MARTIN: You want to jump in here?

YANG: So I guess my point here is to the question of who gets to say certain things. The statement that Marc Lamont Hill made - he was very quick to clarify and to state, I am not making a statement that's intentionally framed around attacking Jews, right? And yet he was fired for his statement. I wonder - because I feel like CNN and other media platforms have elevated many people who have said even more noxious and straightforwardly anti-Semitic things in the past who do not get the same kind of condemnation and results.

And, you know, frankly, it's hard not to say, like, hey, you know, Marc Lamont Hill is an outspoken person on the left who's African-American. And that somehow makes him more of a target perhaps. I - you know, it's hard not to see that there isn't a lack of parallel playing field when statements like this do get made.

MARTIN: Well, this is where I wanted to pivot - and, again, I'm realizing that you know, maybe this is a bad idea - but to pivot to the Kevin Hart example because he was asked to host the Oscars. And then, when these anti-gay tweets emerged from some years ago, he apologized, but he was still asked to step aside.

GOLDBERG: But he didn't really apologize.

YANG: No, he didn't (laughter).

MARTIN: So that's the question - well, nor did Marc Lamont Hill apologize for what he said. But he said, by way of clarification, I'm not saying what you are accusing me of saying.

GOLDBERG: You know, I feel like this conversation can kind of very quickly devolve into a sort of weaponized whataboutism (ph). You know, and I feel that kind of rhetorical turn is often used to shut down criticism of Israel or delegitimize criticism of Israel, right? I mean, if you kind of say that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is intolerable, somebody will quickly say - you know, with some justification - you know, what about the Uighurs in China? What about the - you know, the ethnic cleansing in Burma? And it's certainly true that there are, you know, terrible things being done to minority populations in many, many parts of the world.

But the thing about speech is that - and the reason that I feel like we're in such a difficult position right now is that, on the one hand, I don't like this culture of people, you know, misspeaking or saying one thing out of turn or tweeting one thing that's unfortunate and then quickly, you know, kind of being disappeared from the public discourse - you know, losing their jobs. I think that there needs to be more latitude for people to make a mistake.

And the thing about both of these instances is that in both of these instances, I'm not really sure that they were mistakes, right? It wasn't somebody kind of being misunderstood. It wasn't somebody saying something untoward in a moment of heated debate. If you - I mean, Kevin Hart - if Kevin Hart had simply apologized and said, you know, that these comments were, you know, not who he is anymore, this whole thing would have gone away very quickly. And, you know, his comments were really quite cruel and quite vicious.

KLEIN: Yeah.

GOLDBERG: To have somebody like that headlining...

MARTIN: Well, he said...

GOLDBERG: ...Something like the Oscars, which is, you know, a place full of gay people where, you know...


GOLDBERG: ...Gay people have traditionally found a haven. There is something discordant.

MARTIN: But to your point - I'd like to get back to your earlier point. And I'd like to ask each of you to address your earlier point. Are - your point, Philip, to sort of litigate the idea that if a person states these ideas, are they then excluded from the public discourse? Or is there a way to bring them into public discourse in such a way that you can have a conversation about their point?

KLEIN: I believe in free speech. People could say whatever they want. But freedom of speech and open expression also means if I find something anti-Semitic, I can say, this is anti-Semitic. This is eliminationist rhetoric. This is - calling for the deaths of Jews. So I don't think that you could really separate those two things and just say, oh, yeah, let's have friendly discourse about this. And, no, I think that that's out of the bounds of friendly discourse. Does he...

MARTIN: So I think you are saying he should have lost his job.

KLEIN: No. I don't care. I'm not making policy at CNN. But the idea that somehow CNN doesn't allow criticism of Israel is absurd.

MARTIN: Do you have anything to say about Kevin Hart?

KLEIN: To me, all I'm saying is that, fine, let him lose the gig. But just recognize that basically, with social media, it's very easy to create the appearance of widespread outrage toward things. But just realize that if we're in this environment, there are some cases where people are going to get fired for things where you might think, well, that's completely a reasonable point and that there is going to be a narrowing of discussion.

But I just don't think that it's fair to just conflate all of the situations together and say, oh, well, Marc Lamont Hill got fired for saying controversial things about Israel. No, let's talk about the substance of what he said and why people found it objectionable.

MARTIN: OK. That's a good place to sit down. That was Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times, Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner and journalist and author Jeff Yang.

Thank you all so much for talking with us. Obviously, there's a very great deal to talk about. And - but you've given - you've all given us quite a lot to think about. So thank you all so much for talking with us.

GOLDBERG: Thank you.

KLEIN: Thank you.

YANG: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.