Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Kent State Petition Seeks to Punish Students for Painting “What is a Woman?” on Free Speech Rock

Like many schools, Kent State University has a free speech rock that is a symbol of the right to free expression at that institution. However, some at the school appear to have a narrow view of what constitutes free speech after College Republicans painted “What Is a Woman?” on the rock. The question appears to be a reference to  a documentary by conservative commentator Matt Walsh. The rock painting led to a petition declaring that “The Kent State College Republicans must be held accountable for their actions.”

According to, Marina Difranco, a senior visual communication design major, created the petition and website and insisted that “it doesn’t matter if you’re Republican, Democrat, old young, a student – this type of speech shouldn’t exist anywhere.”That sentiment is picked up by Kent State LGBTQ Studies Professor Lauren Vachon, who called the documentary hate speech. After offering the perfunctory acknowledgment that free speech is “super important,” she added “we know that the intent was antagonism. I do think there should be consequences for that. It’s not about free speech.”

I understand how this documentary can be offensive to many, particularly transgender students and faculty. However, it is all “about free speech.” We cannot simply label documentaries or advocacy “hate speech” because people reject your core beliefs.

Vachon is a self-described “queer activist and educator” who writes on “queer pedagogy […] and collecting queer oral histories.” That is valuable perspective for this (and any) campus and I expect most faculty and students agree with her underlying objections to this documentary. Yet, these students are also part of that diversity of opinion.

Every university must strive to preserve an environment that is welcoming and tolerant. That is why this controversy literally puts Kent State between a rock and a hard place. However, as a state school, it is subject to the First Amendment. Even if it would be inclined to take action against these students or blocking the documentary, it would be prevented from doing so.

This is not the first such controversy caused by “the Rock.”  Three years ago, Kent State faced a similar situation after someone painted “White Lives Matter” on the rock. The university president denounced the painting as part of an overall problem with racism in our society.

The planned protests against the film and the rock are precisely why this is all a matter of free speech. Professor Vachon and others can voice their opposition with equal vigor. One would hope that there might also be room for a substantive and civil discussion of the underlying issues. However, as for calls to hold these students “accountable,” the university should continue its position of supporting the free speech rights of both sides.

The anti-free speech movement is a death knell for our higher education, particularly at private universities, which are not directly impacted by First Amendment protections. The anti-free speech movement is making public universities the last line of defense for those struggling to preserve forums for free speech.

In the petition, organizers referenced the university mascot the “Golden Flash,” and asked “how can flashes support flashes when the university is permitting hate speech?” The answer is that the university supports all “flashes” when it supports free speech. Otherwise, free speech will be gone in a flash.

176 thoughts on “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Kent State Petition Seeks to Punish Students for Painting “What is a Woman?” on Free Speech Rock”

  1. There’s no “civil discussion on the underlying issues” when the KSU Republicans did all of this out of malice and to upset people.

    1. That’s not even true but continue gaslighting yourself into believing that so you can feel morally superior

  2. It seems that since women started wearing pants, voting, owning property and gaining more legal rights than men across the board, what’s left of society is now grappling not only with what a woman is, but what constitutes humanity itself. These things were not even in question before the women’s rights movement came along. The kindergarteners of yesteryear were more in touch with truth and reality than the college graduates of today. They could at least tell you whether their teacher was a man or a woman. The craziness and confusion seems to compound itself daily nowadays.

  3. When reading articles such as this, I cannot help but think that if 50% of the employees of any large college were fired, it would make no appreciable difference in the amount useful skill and knowlege brought forth to the general public.

  4. If you can’t handle being antagonized then you need to grow up and go hide in your mommy’s basement.

  5. “we know that the intent was antagonism. I do think there should be consequences for that. It’s not about free speech.”

    According to this person simple antagonism now justifies punishment. Screaming at people engaging in speech, threatening them, and sometimes attacking them is certainly antagonistic. The left routinely engages in these actions yet this Professor has literally never called for punishment of leftists engaging in these activities. Someone this biased has no business teaching at a public university.

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