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In Kingston, watch what you say


When it comes to presenting a variety of perspectives about global issues, especially the Middle East, some viewpoints are much more welcome than others. Consider the case of former state representative Rod Driver, whose February 20 talk at the Kingston Free Library was abruptly canceled (and then reinstated) because of his sympathy for the Palestinians.

Driver, who was criticized several years ago after he bought television commercials showing the demolition of Palestinian homes, was slated to speak as part of a multi-week series entitled "Avenues in a Perilous World." Other speakers in the program include Mohammed Sharif, president of the Southern Rhode Island Islamic Society, Mackubin Thomas Owens of the Naval War College, and Rabbi Marc S. Jagolinzer of Temple Shalom in Middletown.

But although each segment features a single speaker, South Kingstown Councilwoman Karen Asher considered Driver's opinions so disagreeable that it was necessary to call for an additional speaker. "I just felt it would be better to have an opposing point of view," Asher, who couldn't be reached for comment, told the Narragansett Times. "They have done a great job with the series, but I felt this was one night where another perspective was lacking."

Driver, who was invited months ago to take part, was told January 17 that his talk had been canceled because of a complaint. Asher, who filed the gripe, told the Times that her intent was to add another speaker, not to cancel the talk. Driver, although accustomed to criticism for his unpopular viewpoint, was amazed to see such censorship in a library organization. "I couldn't conceive of how this could happen in the first place," he says. "I pointed out that other speakers in the series," such as the Naval War College's Owens, "would be presenting views quite different from mine."

Driver's talk at the Kingston Free Library was reinstated after he contacted friends and reporters. "I don't know what happened, but little more than 24 hours later [after the cancellation], Ms. [Mary] Daley [of the friends of the library] called me back and said, 'We do want you to speak on the 20th.' "

The episode highlights how free speech can be a relative concept. "It seems to me that people don't want to defend their position when they take that kind of [politically acceptable] position," says Driver, who has suggested that Asher be invited to join him on the program. "They're happy to talk about it as long as no one challenges them."

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]

Issue Date: January 25 - 31, 2002