Defending Your Right to Speak

An interview with PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

No President in living memory has shown a more politicized attitude to the First Amendment than Donald Trump. 

In Trump’s world: Journalists are “enemies of the people.” Nazis are “fine people.” NFL players who take a knee are “sons of bitches.” But the Confederate flag should be allowed because it’s a “freedom of speech” issue.

Exactly how poisonous is Trump’s rhetoric to the political debate? Should we be nervous that the First Amendment is being turned into a political weapon? Is it still possible to have an honest discussion in today’s tribalized, propaganda-driven world? 

For some perspective, I turned to Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, an organization dedicated to defending free expression, supporting persecuted writers, and promoting literary culture. Nossel is also the author of the new book Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, which tackles these issues and offers a practical guide to protecting free speech in America and around the world.

Q&A with Suzanne Nossel

We’re now accustomed to Trump calling any news he doesn’t like “fake” and journalists the “enemy of the people”? How dangerous are Trump’s attacks on the media?

Very dangerous, in my view.  We’ve now seen over 500 incidents of press freedom violations in the context of the anti-racism protests across the country, so law enforcement officials seem to be taking a page from Trump’s playbook. Perhaps even worse, he seems to have convinced much of his political base that factual journalism cannot be trusted. It then becomes very difficult to get through to those people with the truth, whether about politics, current events or even the Coronavirus.

In order to maintain their access to the White House, are journalists now playing Trump’s game—normalizing him on one hand, not asking tough enough questions on the other? If so, what’s the risk of that?

The press has had a tough time knowing how to respond to Trump.  People say they should not cover the tweets, yet his tweets are an expression of US policy and certain major decisions have been communicated that way, meaning that the media has little choice. It’s hard to avoid covering the President of the United States, even if what he is saying or doing can be harmful, such as peddling false cures. I generally don’t think serious news outlets have backed off tough questions though perhaps they have learned the hard way that his answers are very often unrevealing, if not misleading.

Republicans stand up for free speech when Nazis want to talk at colleges, but they also seem to oppose any free speech they don’t like, whether it’s NFL players taking a knee or Black Lives Matter protesters out in the streets. Have Republicans become free-speech hypocrites?

I think there’s some hypocrisy on both sides, to be honest, and that it’s nothing new. The old adage was “free speech for me and not for thee” and we see a lot of that as people defend the First Amendment rights of those on their side—be they conservative provocateurs on campus or anti-racism protesters in the streets but are sometimes silent when it comes to infringements on speech with which they disagree. It even infects the Supreme Court where we are seeing a decisive trend toward justices siding more often with speech that matches their ideological preferences; a tendency more pronounced among Republicans than Democrats.

Conversely, are Democrats too quick to cancel their own in the name of political correctness?

I don’t think it’s Democrats per se, but among those driving forward toward new levels of awareness, sensitivity, equality and inclusion—an essential movement that is achieving vital progress—there can sometimes be a tendency to shame or totally discredit those who question the cause or its tactics. Social justice movements are stronger if they avoid veering into censoriousness.

We’re often told that “sunshine is the best disinfectant”—that free speech allows bad arguments or wrong arguments or Nazi arguments to be heard and then dismissed by the sensible majority. Why isn’t that working anymore? Why does it seem that giving bad ideas a platform only makes those bad ideas infect more people?

Part of the problem is that our digital discourse and media landscape have become so fragmented that ideas may surface only in some narrow estuary of the like-minded where they are never challenged or rebutted. Only when they build up momentum and attract significant followers do they become more visible to the mainstream, at which point the converted may be very hard to pry away with reasoned arguments.

Is there now a generation gap in how different age groups think about free speech? If so, how can that be resolved?

I think there is, and at least some surveys bear that out. Broadly speaking while young people still say they support free speech, they are more ready to limit it in the name of protecting individuals and communities from offense. Having grown up with a much more diverse cohort and greater awareness of the scourges of bigotry of all kinds, young people are more acutely aware of what it will take to bring about the equal, inclusive society for which we all claim to be striving. They recognize how hateful expression can interfere with that, and may be more open to limiting it in the name of protecting individuals from degradation and discomfort. I think it’s a very understandable, humane and in many ways admirable impulse. The problem is that once you give authorities—be it government or an institution—the power to clamp down on speech, they tend to use it in self-serving ways that may turn against the social justice causes that young people favor. I find that when you explain this dilemma to young people, and point out methods of countering noxious speech other than through suppression, they generally can understand and appreciate the point.

Around the country, local news is in trouble and the pandemic has made all the industry’s challenges worse. What are the implications of the loss of local news?

PEN America issued a report last fall called Losing the News that documents the crisis for democracy that ensues when local news outlets dry up.  While the cause of the downturn is economic—the withering of print display and classified ad revenue that has migrated online—the consequences are political, social and cultural.  With the closure of news outlets and the slashing of reporting staff, essential oversight over the functions of government and corporations disappears. Rivers can be polluted, schools starved of resources and essential programs shut down without much outcry because the word doesn’t spread and the origins of and influences over the policy are poorly understood. When voters go to the polls they often have no objective source of information on important local races. A waning of local news coverage also undercuts community ties and cohesion.

Around the world, what are the dangers when America ignores abuses like the brutal murder by Saudi Arabia of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a US green card holder?

It sends the message that the US’s traditional role as a champion of free expression and press freedom around the world has given way to mercenary considerations and that we cannot be trusted to stand with those who take the risk of voicing their views. Our record has never been perfect, but as someone who has represented the US in international human rights forums, it is painful to witness this erosion in the US’s role and what we stand for.

What are you personally and/or PEN America as an organization most concerned about regarding free speech issues as they relate to the upcoming election?

That confusion, lack of preparation and deliberate obfuscation will create openings for conspiracy theories and disinformation to flourish, potentially affecting the election result and/or the readiness of the public to accept it.

What can—or should—the average citizen do to make sure they are not being misinformed or manipulated as the election approaches?

A few things: know where to turn for credible election-related information, like a reliable local news source (if one exists) or your board of elections. Don’t be a vector for misinformation—before you take something to be true, or share it with others, verify that it’s from where it claims to be from and that it is a reliable source. If it’s a photo or video, do a reverse image search to make sure it depicts what it says it does, and has not been manipulated. Consider how a message may be calculated to play up your fears and preconceptions.

Further reading: A “Dare to Speak” Reading List.

Order “Dare To Speak” by Suzanne Nossel via Bookshop and 10 percent of all sales via the link will support the work of PEN America.

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