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PEN America Issues Report on Campus Speech

By October 17, 2016

The American affiliate of PEN International, an international free expression advocacy organization, released a report today on the state of campus expression.

PEN America’s “And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Free Speech at U.S. Universities” and its attached “PEN America Principles on Campus Speech,” takes a look at broader campus speech trends. The documents provide an in-depth discussion of three recent events that have impacted the campus speech conversation and that FIRE has covered extensively, including Title IX investigations at Northwestern University, the Halloween costume altercation at Yale University, and the University of California’s Israeli/Palestinian controversy.

PEN America’s conclusion that free speech on campus is not facing what it calls a “pervasive ‘crisis’” may come as a surprise to many readers. However, we were glad to see the group acknowledge that free expression in higher education “is not free from threats, and must be vigilantly guarded if its continued strength is to be assured.” While we may not agree on all points, the PEN report looks to be a welcome addition to a growing body of scholarship on campus expression.

The report marks PEN America’s first foray into campus speech analysis. Historically an advocacy organization for writers, Executive Director Suzanne Nossel told The New York Times that this latest report is “consistent with PEN’s broad mission, which includes promoting more diverse voices”:

“There’s a lot of attention in the world of free speech advocacy to barriers to expression,” Ms. Nossel said. “There has been somewhat less given to what needs to be in place to enable and unleash expression.”

The NYT also quoted renowned First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, who praised the report but who, like FIRE, was confused by its conclusion that seemed to downplay threats to campus speech.

“I find it hard to read its extraordinarily powerful depiction of things that have happened on campus,” Abrams told the paper, “without concluding there is a crisis of great magnitude.”

Although FIRE is inclined to agree with Abrams’ judgment here, we are encouraged by PEN’s detailed take on this important issue. We are particularly heartened by the group’s emphasis on highlighting recent campus controversies, and how they can be used to increase awareness of the importance of free speech in theory and in practice:

These conversations and controversies have the potential to unleash and amplify new and important voices that can enrich debates on campus and in wider society, thereby expanding free speech for everyone’s benefit.

[…]

Free expression should be recognized as a principle that will overwhelmingly serve not to exclude or marginalize minority voices, but rather to amplify them.

As a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses, the message that free speech is for everyone—and benefits everyone—is one that FIRE has been promoting for 17 years.

FIRE looks forward to delving into the PEN report, and we’ll bring you more on its contents soon.