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So to Speak podcast transcript: ‘Dare to Speak’ with PEN America’s Suzanne Nossel

Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.

Nico Perrino: Okay, welcome back to So To Speak, the free speech podcast where every other week, we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am your host, Nico Perrino. Before we begin today, I wanted to note that our last episode with Brown University Professor Glenn Loury was among the most listened to, if not the most listened to episode of the 114 episodes we’ve released since we began this enterprise, what, four years ago, I think. So, I’m hoping that on this episode we have some new, hopefully regular listeners tuning in. I don’t know what it was about that episode, but – maybe it was Glenn’s loyal network.

He’s a blogger, as many people know, on Bloggingheads TV. Could’ve been the topic, could’ve been the conversation, I don’t know. Whatever it was, we’re thankful for the listeners and we hope you’ll stick around. Now, this week. This week we’re joined by PEN America’s CEO Suzanne Nossel. You last heard her on the show back in 2018, I believe, when we aired that debate, that live debate, over whether there was a campus free speech crisis. She was one of the debaters on the no, there isn’t side. Now Suzanne is back, and she has a new book due out next week, titled Dare To Speak, Defending Free Speech for All.

Suzanne, welcome back on to the show. It’s kinda weird reminiscing on live events, because I have no idea when we’ll be able to have those again.

Suzanne Nossel: Very true. But nice to be here, nonetheless.

Nico: Let’s pick up kind-of where that debate left off. There’s a portion of your book titled The Skeptical Generation, where you relay some of the survey data from – I think you site Smith College and some pupils that suggest members of the so-called Gen-Z who are born believe – between 1995 and 2010, and even some millennials, show wider support for censorship compared to previous generations, for example, Gen-X. Whether that data indicates a crisis, I don’t know. But I wanted to ask, how do you think about that data?

Suzanne: The data sort-of points in different directions. Most young people will say that they firmly support free speech, and if there are concerns about free speech, for example, on their campus that they think that’s a negative thing. But then when you drill down a level and ask them about, for example, whether they would support prohibitions on hateful speech, increasing numbers say they would be open to that, or amenable to that. And I think what that reflects is this concern, particularly over the last few years, that hateful speech has run amok in society, it’s been emboldened and legitimized by people at high levels of government and the president, and that this rising generation that is deeply concerned with issues of inequality, racism, justice, believes that something has to be done. That the problem of hateful speech and the way it effects people is not something we can turn our backs on. That there needs to be a solution, and they sort-of, I think, are at a bit of a loss as to what that solution can be, short of bans, prohibitions, and punishment.

So, that’s why I think we see them holding these two things in their head, both that they believe in free speech, but that they think something must be done about hateful speech, even if that means empowering authorities, be it government or an institution like a private university, to clamp down on it.

Nico: But is that new? When you look at the data, we’ve seen for decades, general support for free speech principles. But I remember speaking with Aryeh Neier, The Open Society Foundation, about the Skokie case, and he was on a – I think it was a radio show or a television show, that allowed him to get live feedback from the audience. And they asked the audience, do you support free speech? And of course, you get the overwhelming support for it, but then they ask would you support Neo Nazis protesting in front of the City Hall? And that support plummeted.

So, do you think it is new, or is it just something particular to this generation? I mean, conflicts between racial justice, social justice, and free speech have existed throughout America’s history.

Suzanne: Right. I mean, it goes back to the title of Nat Hentoff’s old book, Free Speech For Me and Not for Thee. This notion I talk about in the book of hypocrisy concerning freedom of speech and that we – people feel much more of a sense of urgency in defending the speech of those they agree with than they do when it comes to speech that they find abhorrent, or menacing in some way. And so, that was true back in Skokie days and it’s true today. I don’t think it's a new phenomenon. But I think what is new is this sense of urgency that a rising generation has about what it’s going to take to bring about a more equal, inclusive, and just society, and that the marginalization, discrimination, bias, structural racism has to be rooted out.

That we’ve let this fester for too long, that it’s too pervasive, that we’ve turned out back. And so, something must be done. And I think that’s where you have this sense of urgency around the problem of hateful speech, and the idea that there need to be remedies, and that even if those remedies may result in curtailments of freedom of speech, that may be worth it for the aim of bringing about a more just society. So, I think that’s kind-of what’s changed. It’s become a more salient and pressing issue in the minds of this generation, and I think for justifiable reasons. I think their underlying concerns are very legitimate ones, and what they’re pressing for is correct.

That we do have unfinished business in this country in terms of rectifying our legacy of racism. My belief is that we can do that without curbing robust protections for free speech, but it’s gonna take work and I think young people are right to point that out.

Nico: Nearer the end of the book, before you get into the social media portion of your book, you talk about formal equality versus substantive equality. Formal equality being kind-of what the legal framework behind the first amendment has been throughout our history. The belief that to achieve fairness, people must be treated the same way at all times, regardless of individual backgrounds or circumstances. I’m quoting from your book, here. That’s a viewpoint neutrality principle.

But the substantive equality idea is the belief that because of individual situations can differ vastly, in order to achieve equal opportunities or results it may be necessary to adjust for those differences, and in some cases treat people distinctly in order to foster greater equality as an outcome. Do you see students pushing for more substantive equality?

Suzanne: Yeah, I do. I think there’s a recognition that wasn’t enough to eradicate the most overt forms of exclusion on the basis of race, or religion, or gender from, for example, universities or workplaces that – you know, that was one level. And some people had new opportunities as a result of eradicating those forms of discrimination and bias but that the institutions, nonetheless, many decades on remained slanted in terms of who they serve, who benefits, who rises to leadership. We’re now, you know, 60 plus years after Brown versus Board of Education, and our schools across the country are still profoundly segregated.

So, I think people are taking a look at these more persistent, insidious forms of bias and discrimination that are – can’t be rooted out simply by a decision in a courtroom or a formal policy that gets adopted and require a much more searching society wide effort to get at the roots of discrimination and inequity, and historic denials of opportunity. And so, I do think they take a more comprehensive approach to what it will take to finally eradicate the scourge of racism, and that it does go beyond instituting these formal protections.

Nico: So, what does that mean for free speech, then? What does a substantive equality framework look like if implemented under the first amendment? You site one supreme court case from 1952, and I’ll probably butcher the pronunciation of the petitioners in this, but Beauharnais versus Illinois, dealing with group defamation?

Suzanne: Right, Beauharnais, yes.

Nico: Yeah, Beauharnais. There we go. A French word.

Suzanne: It’s interesting, there have been theories advanced over time about how the first amendment could be applied to go further toward the realization of substantive equality, and that’s one of them. And it involves the idea of group defamation, that denigrating not just an individual but a group, could be considered equivalent to liable. You could have a cause – a group could have a cause of action the way an individual would if their reputation had been harmed. And that has not been the prevailing view.

What I would say in terms of the realization of substantive equality from a free speech perspective really has less to do with reinterpretations of the first amendment and more to do with what we achieve as a society, in terms of realizing free speech for all. I mean, there’s a reason why the book is called Dare to Speak, Defending Free Speech for All. That for all piece of it, to me, is extremely important, and it means looking at what are the structural barriers to full participation in public discourse? I talk in the book about the situation, for example, in newsrooms, where targets were achieving racial equality and racial representation among journalists in newsrooms have been systemically missed.

And they’re 25 years behind in reaching their goals in terms of more diverse and racially representative newsrooms. There are similar lags in book publishing, where the staffs of major publishing houses remain overwhelmingly white, and there are a number of reasons for that. And the numbers of books published by authors of color lag far behind. And you can go industry by – creative industry by creative industry, whether it’s magazine publishing, or Hollywood. And you see the systemic patterns of underrepresentation, where the stories that are told are reflections of who dominates in society. So, I believe in order to realize free expression, you have to tackle those barricades as well, and help to lower the barriers, help to catalyze the careers and the opportunities of people from communities that have historically been excluded. And that when you do so, that’s a boon for free speech, that’s an opening up of our discourse, that’s a widening of the range of ideas that are available for all of us to consider.

And if you think about what are the underlying reasons why we protect free speech in the first place, it’s really because of this faith in the broadest possible marketplace of ideas. So, if you have people who are cut out of that systematically, whether it’s by reason of government impairments on their rights or it’s because of socioeconomic factors. They don’t get the education, they don’t have the resources, they don’t have the opportunities, the platforms, the routes to be published. Those barriers count as well. And I think a comprehensive approach to free speech has to tackle them.

Nico: Then what do you make of ideological diversity and the considerations of organizations like Heterodox Academy within the academy? When you look at a situation on campus where, for example, a Turning Point USA group can’t get recognition because they can’t find a faculty advisor, because at places like Harvard, you only have 1 percent of the faculty that’s conservative. And then as far as representation of different political viewpoints even within our news institutions, I mean, we saw it happen with James Bennet at the New York Times for publishing an op-ed from a sitting United States Senator. So, how do those factor into the consideration about raising up different voices?

Suzanne: I think ideological diversity is extremely important, and there’s enormous pressure in that area. I am concerned about a constriction of our discourse, particularly right now, as we embrace and move toward new ideas that there can be an absolutism in the way that that is done that makes people feel genuinely leery of expressing even just questions, much less dissenting opinions or even real resistance. But simply casting doubt on some of the precepts of the movement now afoot for racial equity can put you in a difficult position. If you’re asking questions about what is the best approach to policing reform, that can be seen as a betrayal of the goals of Black Lives Matter. I don’t think it should be that way. I think that’s worrisome in terms of, again, this question of the breadth of our discourse and the range of ideas that we’re willing to entertain. And on campus, I think you’re right. There are a limited number of conservative voices, they’re influential on some campuses, and very much marginalized on others. And in the course of PEN America’s work on campus free speech, we’ve also seen how that can trigger a real backlash. At the University of California at Berkley, when we went there a few years ago to talk about all the events that had erupted in connection with the visit of Milo Yianopoulos and we had kids from the college Republicans who where there, we sort-of said, what led you to issue this invitation to him in the first place?

And it was driven by, they said, this sense that on that campus, a very left leading campus, that the space for them to operate was very small. Like you said, they couldn’t get faculty advisors, without a faculty advisor or a departmental sponsor you couldn’t book a room for an event, and they felt boxed into a corner there. And even some of the students of color and progressive students acknowledged in this conversation that for college Republicans at UC Berkley, it could be a steep hill to climb. And that bred a sort of resentment that led them, I think it played a role in their decision to invite Milo Yiannopoulos and simply prove the point that they could do so.

That, of course, ended up in huge expenditures and a lot of negative publicity for the college Republicans of the university as a whole, and was very divisive and polarizing. So, I think it’s extremely important for universities to make space for ideological diversity, and to try to facilitate reasoned discussion on even controversial, fraught, and sensitive questions where you can easily descend into accusations that somebody is being undermined or their identity is being called into question, and to model the ways in which those hot button issues can be discussed respectfully, civilly, and that the difficult conversation can go forward even despite the hurdles and the risks of misinterpretation.

Nico: Well I have to ask you, because PEN America defends the right of writers and artists, their right to free expression, I have to ask about this Harper’s Letter, which has become quite the topic of conversation within writers’ and journalist circles on Twitter. For example, 150 people signed it, many of whom I suspect are probably members of PEN America, including Salman Rushdie. What do you make of this cancel culture conversation? In the letter, they say the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces, books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity, journalists are barred from writing on certain topics, professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class, a researcher is fired for circulating peer reviewed academics study, and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. I can’t speak to all these generalizations. I can speak to professors, for example. In June, FIRE received something like 300 case submissions. To put that in context, we receive about 1000 a year, the past couple of years.

So, in one month, we received almost a third of the case submissions we got. And they often involved faculty members or students speaking out against the recent protests, or asking questions about the recent protests. I mean, at UCF, University of Central Florida, there was a professor who was investigated for claiming that there was such a thing as black privilege. We have a professor in California who was quoting from Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail, in which Martin Luther King uses the N word twice. He’s investigated for it.

And the problem with a lot of these cases is, most of them involved students who are under – or professors who are under intense pressure and they don’t wanna go public with it either. And one of the criticisms being seen of the Harper’s Letter is that it speaks in broad generalizations, and then you see people dismissing it as a result of that. But if our experience on campus is any indication, a lot of these people are afraid of going public precisely for the reasons that cancel culture is a concern. So, what has your experience been in the literary world? Books being withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity, journalists barred from writing on certain topics?

And we saw what happened with James Bennet at the New York Times, quoting works of literature, etcetera?

Suzanne: Yeah. Look, one of the reasons I wrote the book and centered it around these 20 distinct principles that, in my mind, provide a pathway to living together in our diverse, digitized, and divided society without resort to curbs on free speech is that, I think to talk about these issues you have to say a whole series of things in order for people to really hear you out. And I have chapters in the book talking about the importance of being conscientious with language, and being aware. For example, if your students are gonna be highly sensitive about hearing the N word in class, that’s something I kinda think at this point, professors should be cognizant of. There’ve been many incidents over the last few years, as I know you know, of professors who use the N word in a pedagogical sense, and they absolutely are not using it as a slur, they don’t intend to offend anybody, they’re gobsmacked when there’s a strong harsh reaction from students. But I think when that happens enough times as a professor, it’s incumbent on you to be aware enough of the morays of a rising generation in the students who sit in front of you in class that if you’re gonna do that, you’re at least gonna say something in advance, or explain why you’re doing it, or position it so that it doesn’t illicit that reaction.

So, that’s my point in the book about conscientiousness and I think that’s key. I also have a point in the book about the harms of speech and how important it is to acknowledge those fully, and not be seen to dismiss or downplay them, as I think some advocates of free speech from time to time do, out of a genuine concern that if you cop to the harms, that’s a slippery slope toward legitimizing restrictions on speech. But I think it actually works the opposite way, that by fully taking on board the harms that speech can cause, you strengthen the defense of free speech because you recognize that there are hurts, and there are forms of damage that can result from speech and those are things that need to be addressed and remedied and mitigated, if free speech protections are to persist.

So, I think in the context of the Harper’s Letter, many people interpret it as waving away those considerations. The obligation of people with powerful platforms to speak conscientiously, the fact that speech can bring about genuine harm in certain instances. And even though the letter had some gestures toward those points, I think the thrust of it was about this kind of informal, censoriousness and mob mentality that can arise in response to speech and the chilling effect that that has. And so, I think it’s illustrative of why it’s hard to talk about this and that you kinda have to say all these things in the same breath as, in a sense, I try to do in the book.

If you could call that one big, huge breath across 300 pages but there’s a lot that you need to say in order for the defense of free speech to speak to the concerns of a rising generation, and be reconciled with the drive toward more inclusivity and equality. I think the case can be made, and I think the case for free speech is strengthened when you put it in this context. But I think what we saw in this instance was that only one part of the message really came across, and there was a sense of these other elements. And also the piece we talked about a few minutes ago about the voices that are excluded. Many people criticizing the letters are saying the larger problem is that there are whole communities of people that have been systemically denied the opportunity to engage in free speech, or have powerful platforms for expression. And that’s a much more serious and weighty impairment of free speech than the sort of cancellations that you’re talking about. And so, I think at the core of the letter is a very legitimate issue, but I think to get that across you have to make these other really critical points about what it will take to realize free speech in this country.

The other piece is, of course, the whole debate over the signatories. I thought that was really unfortunate. The idea that individuals were tarnished by having put their names on a letter with certain other individuals who people staunchly disagree with, or believe are fundamentally wrong or offensive in certain aspects of their opinions. That, I think it’s fine. If you believe J.K. Rowling is transphobic, and that her views are unsubstantiated and bigoted, I think that’s fine, but to tarnish everybody else who signed the letter because her name was on there, I think, is a guilt by association and a lowest common denominator notion.

I think what these people were trying to do is say that across a pretty wide range of backgrounds, professions, ideologies, and orientations, there’s some element of common ground. And I think we need more of that common ground rather than less. So, I would encourage people to reach out to strange bedfellows, and to avoid judging one another based on that pretty thin association. It was also clear these people had not reviewed a list of signatories ahead of time, they weren’t endorsing all the others on the list. So, I thought that was an unfortunate element.

Nico: To your point about people’s experiences, subjective experiences, this is one of the points that you make in criticizing my boss, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Heidt’s book is that you feel as though free speech advocates can be too sweeping in dismissing subjective perspectives. You write, in a diverse society, varied backgrounds and identities shape how events and speech are experienced. For society to treat all people equally, it must be willing to consider these divergences. Now, I don’t wanna speak to Greg’s book, Greg and Jon’s book, because I didn’t write it and it’s – I don’t know all the stuff about mental health that they discuss in the book.

But this question of accepting subjective perspectives or experiences, kind-of like, almost as a prerequisite to making the free speech argument, that might not be quite what you’re saying. But you hear on campus that people say, for example, Ronald Sullivan at Harvard makes them feel unsafe because he’s a defense attorney for Harvey Weinstein. Or you hear people say that Nicholas Christakis at Yale makes them feel unsafe. I think that’s exactly what that one woman in the video was saying. You hear at Brown University, people trying to get Guy Benson, a conservative commentator, prevented from coming to speak on that campus. They say because he supports fiscal conservatism and free market ideology, he’s enabling white supremacy and fascist ideas.

You know, I just don’t accept those premises. So, I don’t know what the next logical step is. I accept that they actually feel that, perhaps, and that there’s emotionality behind it. But I don’t think they’re right. I don’t think someone at Harvard is less safe because Ronald Sullivan is the live in faculty member in the dorm room. But maybe that’s me just being callous. And I think what Greg and Jonathan were asking people to do is to analyze their thoughts in the way that cognitive behavioral therapy taught Greg to when he was going through a suicidal depression, and trying to understand whether those thoughts are grounded in reality or whether they are a form of catastrophizing, for example.

But in these cases, we’re talking about accepting these thoughts and perhaps the next logical step is – or one of the demands of being censorship. So, I wanted to get your take on that. How do we empathize without censoring?

Suzanne: Yeah. It’s a great question. I think Jonathan and Greg have done extremely important work in bringing to the foreground of the discourse, the idea that these harms, and you’ve given some good examples, can easily be and often are, exaggerated, overstated, that there’s a mentality that takes hold where people experience harm, or feelings of being unsafe in response to stimuli that, in generations past, would not have elicited that reaction and that we do wanna inspire introspection.

And efforts to equip people to deal more readily with the whole range of challenging ideas, and opinions, and things they disagree with, and that may be a little bit unsettling or upsetting without arriving at this point where they feel so deeply undermined that they turn their back, walk out of class, and become completely alienated and have a sense of almost victimization as a result of something that may be going on in the classroom that a decade ago, wouldn’t have elicited a reaction anything like that. The thing, though, I do think is that – you’ve given many examples, and I talk about a number of them in the book, the Christakis at Yale, and Ronald Sullivan at Harvard, in which, in both instances, I think the net result was a kind of punishment for expression that was totally unwarranted. And it was a sort of reification of these very subjective feelings that, if you dug a little deeper, I think the students could’ve been brought around to understanding where the faculty member was coming from and why their actions, for example Sullivan’s role in the Weinstein case, should in no way make people feel unsafe with him being involved in a residential house.

And I felt both universities stopped short of facilitating that kind of searching dialogue so that people could reach common ground. That said, I do think and I say in the book, that there are examples of speech that are genuinely menacing, and harmful, and can be nooses hung in trees. You know, American University, the days after the University’s first African American student body president was elected, or persistent microaggressions where people are hearing denigrating messages their whole lives. Questioning whether they belong in an academic environment, or –

Nico: The noose question, the noose example is actually a good one. Because you had that situation at, I believe, American University, which was horrible. But you also had a situation at Duke where a student, I believe from China, hung a noose in a tree and took a picture of it, and said hey come – texted his friends, come hang with me, not understanding the cultural context in America that comes along with doing something like that. But the noose was found devoid of that context, and people were genuinely concerned that there was some sort of racist incident happening on campus.

But it took that additional step, actually investigating it, to realize that the racial animus wasn’t there from the beginning. You kinda also saw that with the NASCAR example these past couple of weeks. So, it does – people can subjectively be fearful of these things, and perhaps that’s the right initial reaction, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t investigate it.

Suzanne: Absolutely. I have a while chapter on intent and context, and I think this is one of the most important elements of the equation, is that no matter how clear it may seem on the surface, that there is something racially or gender wise, offensive that’s being communicated, it may not be the case. I mean, I use the example of the math teacher at Friends Seminary, who put his arm up at an angle and said heil Hitler, you know? What could be a more obviously anti-Semitic commentary in the classroom than that? But in fact, when they investigated, yeah, this is a guy who’s the grandson of – sorry, the son of holocaust survivors. And it was just a momentary, off the cuff statement that came to his mind that had zero anti-Semitic animus, and the students were completely behind him. And in the end he was reinstated. It was just a vivid example of something that, on it’s surface – you know, the Bubba Wallace thing as well.

If it looks like a noose, and this is the only African American in NASCAR, it seems pretty obvious what’s going on, but sometimes that can be wrong. So, I think those examples are important, but they shouldn’t detract from the fact that they’re also examples – for example, American University, where someone actually is hanging a noose in order to intimidate a student leader. And so, I wouldn’t be quite so quick to point out the counter examples. I think you have to dwell longer on speech that is genuinely intended to intimidate, to belittle, to demean, because it’s real. It happens, it has a drastic effect on people, it impairs progress, it reinforces historic feelings of marginalization and exclusion.

And as free speech defenders, I think we need to acknowledge that, and we need to fight against it, we need to condemn hateful speech. There’s no contradiction between doing that and defending free speech. You can reject someone’s message adamantly while still defending their right to express it. And I think it’s particularly important if we want our message to be heard, that communities that have been historically excluded hear from free speech defenders that we recognize and care deeply about speech that can cause harm.

Nico: Well, let me ask you this, because I think we, at FIRE, take a slightly different approach. Not that we, as individuals, don’t agree with all those concerns, and I’d say many, of not most, of FIRE staffers do. But in so far as our mission’s concerned, we always try and maintain viewpoint neutrality on the content of speech. The idea being that if we condemn this speaker and not this speaker, certain speakers might be less likely to come to us for help in the future, either seeking legal help or public advocacy help. And then we are also concerned about the position that you might get in, where you are called to give an opinion on this or that. We work with groups that are supportive of Israel, we also work for Students for Justice in Palestine. Some of the students that are supportive of Israel might say that the activism of the Students for Justice in Palestine makes the campus unsafe for them. I believe some have actually said that. So, then you get into the position of having to judge harms, which as a civil liberties organization is, we think, is a slippery slope. So, we just play it down the middle, determining whether it’s protected or not in the course of our doing work. But PEN America takes a little bit of a different approach. I mean, as it has come through in this conversation, right?

Suzanne: I think somewhat different. I think each organization has its role to play, and I think FIRE has a very important role to play. And that point neutrality, for you I think, is central to your mission, and it is why professors and faculty members left and right can turn to you, and we tell them to turn to you if they’ve been retaliated against, that you should be the first place, really, that they should call. So, I don’t think we all need to play the same role in this. But when you look at, for example, the role of a university administration, if there is hateful speech on campus, I think they do have a dual role to play.

Both in supporting students who feel legitimately victimized by something that clearly goes into the territory of bigotry, even if they’re defending the speech as within the permissible bounds of the first amendment. So, I think that dual role in some instances, particularly when it’s an authority that people are looking to for a guidepost. Is this kind of expression tolerated or suborned on this campus? Am I in a place where biased attitudes are allowed to run rampant and there’s no real counterweight? I think that’s a situation for minority students that’s untenable. And they need to feel they have the support of the administration.

And administrations we have seen in recent years, I think doing a better job of being able to communicate these dual messages that, what was said goes against the values of the university, and yet it constitutes protected speech. And there are grey areas. You touched on some, where people would characterize any defense of capitalism as white supremacy. Do we expect the university to come out against that? I don’t think so. And I think we have to be vigilant, and I know you do this, in terms of where reaction is legitimate and there’s a basis for it, and where we believe it’s purious, or it’s overblown and it needs to be countered through reasoned dialogue.

So, I don’t think you can lump it all in one category or the other. That’s the thing about these – each of these incidents is fact specific. That’s why intent and context matter so much.

Nico: Yeah. Well, the last podcast, the one that got a surprising number of listens, was with Professor Glenn Loury of Brown University. I invited him on to talk about academic freedom in particular because Brown’s President, Christina Paxon, had just written a litter showing solidarity – on behalf of the administration, showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter and it’s critiques of structural racism. And Glenn Loury, who you may or may not be familiar with, he’s a professor there, he’s a black professor there, objected to the letter because he though that it was the administration taking a position on contentious current events, and as a result, chilling descent on those events.

And it can be a slippery slope, but if you look to the University of Chicago model, and the Kalven statement from the middle part of the century when the university was trying to be pulled in, I believe it was in the ‘50s or ‘60s, during all the debates around Communism and the Vietnam War and whatnot. The university just decided to say at that point, we’re viewpoint neutral on modern social and political questions. And I invited Glenn to talk about how universities are moving away from that to take positions on certain hot button topics like Black Lives Matter, for example, and what that might do to academic freedom. Do you see there as being a chilling effect?

Or as the Supreme Court might say, a pall or Orthodoxy that comes with being too strident on certain events? I think we can all agree that people should be treated equally, and that unarmed black men and women should not be killed in the streets by the police. But on the question of – Glenn posited that there are a lot of open questions as to regards as the level of crime, or to affirmative action, questions that now seem to be beyond the pale, he argues. So, what is your thought about that?

Suzanne: I think it’s tricky. There are issues that have really pulled the university into the realm of public debate. For example, DACA, the status of young, undocumented students who were given protected status during the Obama administration, which was then, under the Trump administration, subject to an effort to pull it back and get many of them deported and deny them opportunities for education and work. And these are students at the universities who, the universities have an obligation toward them. And so, many of the universities felt quite protective of their students and that goes to this combination of roles that the university is playing. And we see this now, intensified with the pandemic. Is the university – it’s a form for academic freedom for sure, but it’s also a home. And in some ways, in loco parentis, vis-à-vis students for their time there. I was just reading the article the other day about students who can’t go home to do their remote learning, and the fact that they have nowhere to live. If they’re on financial aid, the room and board would have been provided if they could be on campus. But when they can’t, they’re thrust into indigency, and what is the universities obligation as regards to that? So, I think there’re a series of complex questions about the breadth of the role of the university.

I think it’s extremely important. We know that all these institutions are feeling compelled to speak out, and for good reason, on issues of racial justice, and police violence against black lives. And that, you know, it’s a real signal moment to take a stand and articulate a position that puts you on the side of wanting to eradicate racism and face up to racial legacies within your own institution. I think there’s a lot in that that’s positive and powerful. I also think it can veer into censoriousness.

It’s a really hard moment to even raise questions about some aspects of that, that I believe should be the subjects of legitimate debate. Whether it’s what policy changes should be made on campus –

Nico: Yeah, defunding the police for example, is an open policy question.

Suzanna: Right, or radically overhauling curricula. That’s something that should be discussed. You shouldn’t be afraid to point out how that might have unanticipated consequences, or that certain courses that people might think are less valuable, you believe have great utility. And so, I think the challenge of the university is to walk the right balance between an articulation of principle and creating space for true viewpoint diversity. And also, being willing to stand up for individuals on campus who depart from the orthodoxy. Because that’s really how it gets tested. That’s what everybody watches. If they’re thinking about, should I speak up? Do I dare defy the orthodoxy here?

They look to how the campus has responded, how leadership has responded. Have they had the backs of people who have done that? And if they haven’t, I think the impulse, more often than not, is just to keep silent. Because who wants to subject yourself to that kind of exposure? Professional exposure, reputational exposure? And it’s always a question of what is the universe of legitimate debate? And some people believe certain topics or viewpoints should be off limits. Others think they’re squarely within the realm of what ought to be discussed and deliberated on. And we’re not always gonna agree on that. My perspective as a free speech defender is that we ought to keep that territory as broad as possible, and be really leery of shutting it down. You bring up the Israeli/Palestinian debate.

And I think that is a good illustration about how these arguments about that which makes me feel unsafe, really end up being brought up on both sides. I think some of the feelings are quite genuine, and yet if you accede to them, you’re shutting down all discussion and advocacy, potentially on both sides of that really important issue.

Nico: I wanna ask, somewhat relatedly, about apologies. We’re talking about – we have been talking about cancel culture, a lot of the people who have “been cancelled” have issued apologies. You write that when speech offends more deeply, an apology can mean the difference between an uneasy encounter and a career or life altering conflict. I agree that apologies are important, but I wonder if they can also make things worse for some people? There was a study from Richard Hanania, I believe his name is, at Columbia University, I think the Peace Center over there.

He found in a paper from last year, I believe – I’m quoting from the abstract here, that when a prominent figure apologizes for a controversial statement, individuals are either unaffected, or become more likely to desire that the individual be punished. He sites as an example the Larry Summers controversy at Harvard. And he said, when presented with two versions of the controversy surrounding Larry Summers and his comments about women scientists and engineers, liberals and females were more likely to say that he should’ve faced negative consequences for his statement when they were presented with his apology, rather than when they were not presented with his apology.

So, what shall we make of that phenomenon? Should we factor it into public figures’ decisions to apologize? In short, is there maybe something to Trump’s reluctance to ever apologize?

Suzanne: That’s interesting. I haven’t seen the study that you reference, but I think it’s concerning if we are becoming a society in which to apologize is only to reaffirm everyone’s perception of your guilt. I think that’s a dangerous path. We do see instances of that kind of defiance, of course, from the president. I think other people have taken from his playbook. I think of Brett Kavanaugh and the hearings, just not brooking any of it, even when there was a very credible witness who was pretty convincing to a lot of people. So, I don’t say you should apologize disingenuously. If you really believe –

Nico: Correct, yeah.

Suzanne: – you’re conduct and your speech was 100 percent defensible, then you should contextualize it and explain it. I give some examples of people who’ve managed to do that, and to really unpack why it is that they said what they did and how they had no nefarious intent. And sometimes that can work. But I think in general, a measure of humility and humanity, in my observation – I think in most encounters, human encounters at the individual level, can defuse really fraught situations. So, I would be – I’d like to see that study, but I am not convinced that on balance apologies tend only to make things worse.

Nico: Yeah, I’ll share the study with you after this. I think there’re actually a couple that found a similar phenomenon. But I wanna close up here asking about two different events that you were involved in. Let’s start with the Charlie Hebdo situation. In 2015, of course, terrorists stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, which is a French satirical magazine. They killed 12 people and injured 11 others allegedly because of its depictions of the prophet Mohammed and it’s other attacks on religion and religious leaders. The magazine went on publishing afterwards, of course, which I considered to be pretty courageous, actually.

In my office, I have a copy of the Je Suis Charlie addition, the first addition that was released after those attacks. You all also thought it was pretty courageous, or they were pretty courageous, and gave them your Freedom of Expression, Courage Award that year. But there are some in your community who were opposed to your decision to do that. Can you talk about how you navigated people’s, I guess – I wouldn’t call it offence, but their criticism of Charlie Hebdo and how you factored that into your decision to give them a Courage Award?

Suzanne: Yeah, sure. To be honest, at the time when we made the decision to confer the award, it was shortly after the attacks and it was such a horrific act of brutality in retaliation for a publication of a magazine that, it seemed to us, almost instinctive that we were gonna recognize them. And we didn’t give probably enough thought to the fact that some people would oppose the award. And we went along, and we were about 10 days out from the event where the award was to have been presented. And a group of writers active in PEN, sent us a series of emails saying they were dropping out of the event in protest against the award because they believe that Charlie Hebdo was racist.

And we did a series of things. First of all, we immediately ordered to be rushed over to us, the many thick volumes of all the issues of Charlie Hebdo so that we could take a closer look at these cartoons and this coverage. And I think our sense was, and it was confirmed by the more intensive examination, that Charlie Hebdo really skewered everybody. They went after the Orthodox Jews, and Catholic religious leadership, political leaders, and everybody was made fun of and mocked and drawn in these highly stylized caricatures. And that included Mohammed, but was by no means limited to Mohammed. And there is the French tradition of [speaks French] [00:48:18] and the staunch secularism.

Why it is that they have such a pitched debate over, for example, whether you could wear a head scarf, something that in this country would be really hard to imagine, dictating to women that you couldn’t wear a religious head scarf. And yet there, people believe you can wear it in your own backyard, but you shouldn’t be able to wear it in a post office, or a courtroom. And so, there are some differences of view. And I think there are some blind spots and lapses in sensitivity. But we really felt unbalanced.

This is a satirical magazine that, as we put at the time, was sort-of patrolling the outer boundaries of free expression and satire, and that their willingness to do so under grave threat to their lives was an act of courage that we wanted to recognize. And when people attack that, our response was really to just try to defend it on it’s merits, and make the case of how we interpreted the work of Charlie Hebdo, why we thought the award was justified, that we did understand the concerns that were being raised. We didn’t think they should be dismissed out of hand. We weren’t outraged that people came after the decision.

We respected the people that raised the issues. We cared about them. We viewed them as valued members of the PEN community. And I think in retrospect, it was before Twitter had taken over our lives to the extent that it has today. It was a pretty reasoned discussion. It got heated, there were some nasty things said by a few individuals. But there was also a lot of really thoughtful argumentation on all sides of the decision. And when it came time to present the award – it was funny, but the head of the leading French anti-racism organization actually flew to New York on his own dime, and insisted on getting up at the podium to defend the decision to give them the award. He was so passionate about it. That, for us, was reassuring. That in context – and again, it goes back to this point of intent and context that’s seen in context, these cartoons were in fact not bigoted.

The other thing I talked about in the book is, one of the most egregious cartoons is this image of a black woman on a cover of Charlie Hebdo wearing pearls, but being depicted as a gorilla, and it seems like the most offensive thing you could ever imagine. It’s the extremely racially offensive, kinda archetypally so. And it’s horrifying to see, certainly from an American eye, but it turned out that the woman who was depicted in that picture was French, then Justice Minister Christiane Taubira. And she actually gave the eulogy at the funeral of the cartoonist who had drawn that image, and was then murdered. Because she recognized that it was sending up the French right wing.

And that there were a series of indications in the drawing, including the logo of the right wing party, that made clear that he was ridiculing them for their rampant racism. He used the shocking image to do so. And so, it meant a lot that she was the person depicted in that image, being mocked, and yet she saw the satirical intent of it. So it, to me, really illustrated this point about intent and context. But I think there is another point, too, which is you have to think about how your actions and decisions are gonna come across to the full breadth of audiences. And I think we missed some of that.

Nico: I don’t know that they had anticipated that their magazine would be brought to American audiences that wouldn’t understand French satire either.

Suzanne: Yeah, but you kinda have to in a globalized world. That’s the thing. That’s what’s so hard. It can be very daunting to think about speaking in this globalized world, where anything you say or Tweet may ricochet around the world and could be interpreted by anyone in a way that you might never had imagined.
Nico: Yeah. Last question here, relatedly – this wasn’t your first foray into concerns about religious offensiveness. You were at the State Department in the years following the Danish Mohammed cartoon controversy. And at the beginning of your book, you talk about how every year after that controversy there was a UN resolution championed by, what was then called the Organization of the Islamic Conference, to prohibit so-called defamation of religion. Every year the United Stated deposed it, for the reasons you might expect. But you were part of the team that finally was able to put that resolution to rest. Can you talk about that a little bit, as a way of closing, here?

Suzanne: Sure. I was working at the State Department, and as you say, every year, or twice a year in fact, once in New York and once in Geneva, we would do this pitched battle with the Organization of the Islamic Conference to try to get their resolution on defamation of religion voted down. Because it was a resolution that advocated for prohibitions on defamatory speech. And the U.S.’ view and that of our European allies and many others around the world, it contravened international protections for free speech. But the battle to me seemed rather ridiculous. It was just – it wasn’t advancing the cause of free speech.

I recognize that the Islamic delegations had some legitimate concerns about disrespect on the basis of religion being targeted and marginalized, and that the resolution wasn’t doing anything to tackle those underlying concerns that they legitimately had. And so working with colleagues, we hatched a different approach of doing a resolution that would bore in on that underlying question of religious intolerance, and bring together officials from around the world who are working to combat hate crimes, and hateful speech, doing public education programs, interreligious dialogue, and all the sorts of constructive things that you can do to foster religious tolerance.

So, we really made that the centerpiece of a new resolution and then worked methodically to build the support of delegations around the world for something that we could A) get agreement on, and B) that would be practical and constructive and actually do something to get at the legitimate issues that were at the heart of the matter from our perspective. And believe it or not, it actually worked. I took a trip to Islamabad to try to explain what was behind this approach. And I do find in all these battles, that if you can get with people face-to-face, and have a dialogue, not all the time but a lot of the time there is potential for common ground. Even between the United States and Pakistan on the question of defamation of religion. Ultimately we got to a solution that everybody was proud of, And so for me, that was in some ways the starting point for this book, which is the idea that these conflicts are not insoluble. They’re not irreconcilable. It’s not a matter of reviling one side or another but try to look at, what are the underlying concerns that work, and how can we bring them together and accomplish a series of things at once? And so, it takes 20 principles, maybe, to do so. But I think it is possible for us in particular to construct a more racially equitable, fair, just world but sustain the robust protections for free speech that we care so much about.

Nico: Yeah. But with the example, with the religious example here, we’re again talking about subjective interpretations of expression. The Danish Mohammed cartoons, Salman Rushdie’s satanic verses, Charlie Hebdo’s magazine cover. For me, religion is the first question, how we got here. It shouldn’t be open – there shouldn’t be critique that is prohibited of those questions. Are you able to convince them, for example, that Salman Rushdie’s satanic verses isn’t a form of religious intolerance? How do you bridge that divide? Or the Mohammed cartoons? If that is the impetus for the resolution, and the question presented before the UN is censorship, do you just focus in on the axe?

Like, hate crimes for example? Or things that systemically you might be able to address because they’re codified in law? But the question of culture and critiquing religion, I just don’t know how you bridge that divide, although it sounds like you did.

Suzanne: I remember them – when I was in Islamabad – I’m Jewish, and I remember my diplomatic counterpart saying we don’t make offensive depictions of Moses. And he was saying it very genuinely, like you should recognize and respect the fact that we don’t do this. And it was strange to me, because it really wouldn’t bother me if you did. So I think there’s some aspects of culture that you’re probably not gonna reconcile. It’s how people are brought up, it’s their religious faith, and where you can find the common ground is by saying, look, we may never agree on A, B, and C, but what about D, E, F?

Because we think these things would be beneficial, and would it be valuable to you if the experts in the U.S. Justice Department told you about how we prosecute hate crimes? Or if we shared models of interreligious dialogue from different parts of the world that could be adapted elsewhere? If we brought leaders together to make joint statements against religious intolerance and put their moral authority behind those? Would that have some value to you? Is that an approach that you could subscribe to? And the subtext is, very much, we’re never gonna agree on the other stuff. We’re gonna be fighting you tooth and nail on that, if that’s the path you wanna stay on. But maybe there’s a different path, where we could build on the elements that we all can support, and do something tangible and practical that might actually change lives, or improve the situation.

So, I don’t think the fact that there are certain intractables necessarily has to stand in the way of compromise and common ground. Sometimes you can put them aside. Sometimes you can prioritize other areas.

Nico: Well, I think we have to leave it there. That’s a good place to leave it, as it’s so much the theme of your book. Thanks for coming on the show, and I hope we can do this again. It’s been two years since we did it last time, and hopefully not two years before we do it next time.

Suzanne: Thank you so much, Nico. Great to talk with you.

Nico: That was PEN America’s CEO Suzanne Nossel. Her book is Dare To Speak, Defending Free Speech for All, and it is out on July 28th. She’s also on Twitter at: @SuzanneNossel, that is S-U-Z-A-N-N-E N-O-S-S-E-L. This podcast is hosted, produced, and recorded by me, Nico Perrino, and edited by Aaron Reese. To learn more about So To Speak, you can follow us on Twitter at, or like us on Facebook at You can also email us feedback at, and we take reviews on Apple Podcast and Google Play, wherever else you get your podcasts. They help us attract new listeners to the show. And until next time, thanks again for listening.