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Trigger warning: Either you’re for free speech or you’re not

Barry Bluestone, a Northeastern University professor, was criticized for remarking in a lecture that he wouldn’t mind seeing President Trump dead. Globe Staff/File 2011

THE HUMOR POLICE are cracking down, from the right and left.

During a lecture on “The rule of law in a time of polarization,” Northeastern University Professor Barry Bluestone said, “This president that we have is really out of control. . . . Sometimes I want to just see him impeached. Other times, quite honestly — I hope there are no FBI agents here — I wouldn’t mind seeing him dead.”

“ . . . Of natural causes,” quickly added liberal journalist Robert Kuttner, who also participated in the event.

“Of natural causes. Thank you. Thank you,” said Bluestone, according to an account by Campus Reform, which identifies as a campus watchdog “exposing bias and abuse.”


Reasonable people could interpret Bluestone’s initial comment as a weak joke, not incitement to violence against President Trump. And the follow-up banter definitely comes off like academia’s idea of jocularity. But the right was not amused. Fending off backlash from angry conservatives, Northeastern quickly distanced itself from the professor’s remark. Bluestone apologized, said the comment was “stupid,” and explained he didn’t mean it literally. A video of the public lecture was taken down from YouTube.

So much for lefty humor.

But seriously, folks, have you heard about the latest uproar over at WEEI concerning the stereotypical Asian accent used by cohost Christian Fauria to mock sports agent Dan Yee?

Fauria apologized and was suspended for five days. My colleague Shirley Leung argues that’s not enough. She believes the cohosts who laughed along with Fauria’s sorry joke should also be punished. While I absolutely respect Leung’s perspective and agree that the pretend Asian accent was offensive, I just wonder where we draw the censorship line. What if the agent had an Italian-sounding name, and a radio host did a Marlon Brando-Godfather-like impersonation? Or aped an Irish brogue or upper-crust British accent? If the radio station is going to ban pretend-Asian accents, shouldn’t it also ban all fake accents? Otherwise, where’s the consistency? And how will WEEI hosts know the rules of engagement?


Leung is also much braver than I. She actually reads what WEEI listeners tweet at her. I generally leave that to others, although I do read and respond to as much e-mail as possible. I understand her disgust with the tone of the daily conversation and the middle-school meanness it elicits from the audience. But you’re either for free speech or you’re not. That’s why I reluctantly backed WEEI cohost Alex Reimer’s use of an unpleasant word to describe Tom Brady’s five-year-old daughter and suggested Brady had no grounds for complaint, since he put his daughter in his “Tom vs. Time” video. Trust me, that was an unpopular position, on both the left and right.

WEEI’s suspension of Reimer had rare appeal across the ideological spectrum. Usually, outrage breaks along predictable political lines. Indeed, an entire book has been written about that. In “Free Speech for Me, But Not For Thee,” Nat Hentoff explains “how the American left and right relentlessly censor each other.”

That applies to humor, too. Comedian Kathy Griffin sparked outrage for posing with a replica of President Trump’s bloody, decapitated head last May. For that, she was fired from CNN’s New Year’s Eve broadcast. She’s just starting to venture back in public and made her first red carpet appearance since the controversy, at the 2018 Writers Guild Awards ceremony in Beverly Hills.


Meanwhile, Sony Pictures Entertainment just issued an apology over a scene in its new film “Peter Rabbit,” during which a character with an allergy to blackberries is attacked by them. “Food allergies are a serious issue. Our film should not have made light of Peter Rabbit’s archnemesis . . . being allergic to blackberries, even in a cartoonish, slapstick way,” Sony said in a statement after an advocacy group, “The Kids with Food Allergies Foundation,” complained about the movie.

Someone also told The New York Times the movie should come with a “trigger warning.” Maybe this column should, too.

I know. There’s no absolute right to free speech. Employers can set limits and the marketplace applies its own standards. So do individuals. I’d prefer a less sexist and less racist radio station. But I also support Bluestone’s right to muse out loud about a Trump-free world. So I find it hard to call for censoring one without censoring the other. And that’s no joke.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.