Kent State reacts to calls to cancel Jane Fonda’s May 4 commemoration speech

The May 4 50th Commemoration Advisory Committee released a statement on Feb. 18 that addressed the controversy around its decision to have actress and activist Jane Fonda speak during the commemoration of May 4. 

“We take to heart the painful feelings expressed by those for whom Fonda’s visit to Hanoi as a young activist in 1972 had a profound impact,” the statement said. “We are equally moved by those who expressed their high regard for Fonda’s atonement after the incident and her life-long activism in support of human rights and civil rights.”

The statement said the advisory committee wanted to incorporate different viewpoints in the commemoration and believes it is important “to reconcile differences through thoughtful reflection and productive discourse.”

Uma Krishnan, May 4 Task Force adviser and professor in the Department of English, wrote in an email that “Their [May 4 Task Force] only mantra at this point is to focus on the 50th commemorative events as a university event. Further, they want their focus to be on the students who sacrificed their life for a just cause and work towards reconciliation and future legacies.”

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose made a Facebook post on Feb. 16 that asked Kent State to reverse its decision to have Fonda speak during the commemoration. Fonda is slated to speak on Sunday, May 3 to a sold-out crowd of more than 4,000 people as part of the Presidential Speaker Series.

“The 50th anniversary of one of Ohio’s darkest days has the potential to serve as a moment of unity, understanding and healing in a nation that is deeply divided,” LaRose wrote. “However, Kent State’s decision to pay Jane Fonda $83,000 to speak at their commemoration event does the very opposite.”

LaRose, who served in the army for 10 years, said Fonda acted as “a propaganda tool for those engaged in hostilities against the United States.” His Facebook post has more than 400 comments and shares. 

LaRose also tweeted on Feb. 16 “there’s still time to right this wrong @KentState — rescind your invitation to @Janefonda. The anniversary of this tragedy is not the time to pay a speaker who betrayed our service-members. Just my perspective as a veteran.” 

Fonda’s history of social activism dates back to the 60s and 70s, when she showed support for a variety of causes including the anti-war movement, the Black Panther Party and issues faced by Native Americans. Most notably, she opposed the Vietnam War and participated in anti-war speaking tours in North America and Vietnam. 

In 1972, Fonda drew criticism when she visited Vietnam and was photographed sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun. The image earned her the nickname “Hanoi Jane.” Some lawmakers called it treason and wanted to see her prosecuted, according to Time Magazine

Fonda apologized for the photograph multiple times. She wrote on her website in 2011, “I have apologized numerous times for any pain I may have caused servicemen and their families because of this photograph. It was never my intention to cause harm.” 

Fonda has continued to be politically active, focusing on issues like abortion rights and climate change. In fall 2019, Fonda was arrested multiple times during climate change demonstrations on Capitol Hill. 

Although Fonda apologized for the photograph, some feel her actions during the Vietnam War should not be forgiven. 

“Slandering any veteran, especially in the Army, like I was, I feel that’s very disrespectful. To get into something personal with the troops anywhere overseas like that or on the stateside is a mockery of any kind of war,” said Kenny Boger, veteran and resident of the Freedom House in Kent. 

Boger also said, “When we joined this service, we raised our hand to uphold the United States and that’s not just for the ones who are [in] favor for the military, but the ones who aren’t, too.”

Veteran and Freedom House resident Jeffery Shook, on the other hand, said he thinks having Fonda speak during the commemoration will be a positive experience. 

“Maybe she’s changed,” Shook said. “But it’s nice of her to do this, you know. I think it’s good. I think pretty much all is forgiven.”

Nadine Battah contributed to this report. 

Contact Paige Bennett at [email protected].