Learn More About Free Speech on June 30

Learn More About Free Speech on June 30

Monique Bolsajian
 | 
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain at the hands of police have sparked national conversations and protests about police brutality, racial justice, and equity. 
 
PEN America is an advocacy organization that focuses on protecting and celebrating freedom of speech, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. 
 
It's a tricky time for free speech in America. Does free speech include hate speech, which often leads to violence against Black and Brown communities? And what happens when law enforcement attacks those who are simply exercising their freedom of speech, as we have seen in recent protests? 
 
These are questions that PEN America is making an active effort to address on multiple levels. One focus has been the role of free speech on college campuses. 
 
PEN America’s Campus Free Speech Program recently hosted a webinar on Free Speech and Black Lives on Campus.
 
One of the panelists was Neijma Celestine-Donnor, who works at the University of Maryland as the Director of Bias Incident Support Services. 
 
“You cannot have a discussion about free speech without having a discussion about power. Those who hold power have more access to free speech,” Celestine-Donnor explained in the webinar. “Words matter. Language has been weaponized to perpetrate violence against Black and Brown bodies. Racist speech constructs this reality that constrains the freedom of Black and Brown folks because of race.”
 
How to combat this? She says, “You can acknowledge that someone has the right to free speech but also engage in moral leadership and denounce the content.”
 
“While free speech can be an ally for those who are marginalized, when marginalized folks engage in counter-speech they can be made to look as though they are trying to attack free speech - when they’re really just engaging in their own free speech.”
 
You can listen to the full panel discussion here.

Their next webinar is titled Pride and Protest: Free Speech and LGBTQIA Student Activism in 2020 on Tuesday, June 30th at 3:30 PM EST. The event will be a discussion with LGBTQIA+ student activists and leaders from around the country about sexual and gender identity, race, and the effects of the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic on student expression.
 
LawChamps spoke with Nicholas Perez, Campus Free Speech Program Coordinator, about PEN America’s recent efforts to empower folks to think about free speech differently - and how we can use freedom of speech to protect Black lives. 
 
Q:  Why do you think it’s important to get information about freedom of speech out to students and members of college communities?
 
A: PEN America is an organization that has fought for free speech for close to 100 years now. One of the unique things about our Charter is that it states that we not only stand against threats to free expression, but we also have a dual obligation to work against and dispel all hatreds.
 
This allows us to be uniquely poised to both advocate for free speech while condemning and speaking out against hate - and our efforts are proof that both can be done.
 
The events of the past several months have been appalling in many ways. We have seen attacks on Asian communities related to the Coronavirus pandemic, and we have seen racism and acts of violence against Black communities.
 
Now, because of the Coronavirus, the way we do our work has changed. We usually travel around the country and do free speech workshops at schools in-person. Although we can't do those now, we still want to educate folks about these issues and about the hateful incidents that have been occurring.
 
When we started seeing the protests, we knew we needed to be responding to this moment. We wanted to be creating spaces to have conversations on these vital issues, while also elevating Black voices in academia.
 
Q: How do you navigate around how the freedom of speech can also allow for hate and bias-based crimes against Black students and people of color? 
 
A: A big part of our job is to go to college campuses to educate people about the First Amendment, and we often talk about how the freedom of speech is a bedrock civil rights principle in the United States appreciated more here than anywhere else in the world. 
 
From a legal perspective, the US has one of the most liberal legal infrastructures on speech in the world. The legal thresholds to qualify speech as harassment, libel, defamation, threats of imminent violence, and more have been set at a really high bar by the Supreme Court.
 
Still, events featuring controversial speakers, for example, can lead to discussions that create really harmful impacts for students on those campuses.
 
So the question we ask ourselves and the university communities we speak to is: how do you foster a campus that is true to the First Amendment and human rights while also balancing those efforts with principles of equity and inclusion?
 
What makes PEN America unique is that when we do our educational work surrounding free speech, we refuse to only talk about defending free speech. We believe that you just can't stop there. You can’t stop at free speech and simply ignore the real harm caused by hateful and offensive speech. 
 
We believe in teaching that you should be answering speech you disagree with, with more speech. We believe in encouraging students to speak out against harmful speech with speech of their own.
 
And beyond that, when there are controversial speakers and events at universities, universities need to be thinking about how to structure these events to incorporate as many views and perspectives as possible. 
 
We encourage students and faculty to design counter-speech events that create a space for students who want to share their views to express themselves.
 
At the end of the day, we see there’s a lot of work to be done. A lot of Black students, faculty, and staff for example, have experienced countless racist incidents on campus and have been afraid to come forward in fear of retaliation, losing their jobs, or drawing unwanted attention.
 
When we think about this, we’re reminded that saying that we just want free speech for all and leaving it at that, is different from openly addressing the power dynamics and structures that exist around the accessibility of free speech.
 
We need to rather be thinking about how we can use free speech as a way to elevate marginalized voices, communicate these experiences, and go from there.
 
Q: What projects and initiatives do you see going on in PEN America that you’re most excited about? 
 
A: Our recent webinars on countering anti-Asian hate and anti-Black racism have really opened the door for us to be thinking more about what inclusive free speech can look like in the future.
 
We need to be talking more about power dynamics and the accessibility of free speech.
 
Free speech is sometimes falsely preconceived as solely a Conservative talking point. There are Black people, people of color, and others in the US who when they hear about free speech they think “Free speech doesn’t belong to me.”
 
The goal of the PEN America Campus Free Speech program is to emphasize that free speech should belong to all, and campuses should belong to all. 
 
We will be holding a Free Speech Advocacy Institute this summer, where high school and college students alike will be able to learn about free expression advocacy work. This Institute will be virtual for now, but we’re hoping to hold future sessions in person.
 
Q: What would you say is the most challenging part of your job?
 
We have a current government that’s been attacking the press and placing limitations on freedom of expression. Our government is alarmingly reflecting authoritarian governments, and this poses challenges in so many ways.
 
It’s our obligation, and the obligation of any advocacy organization that wants to be effective, to respond to the moment. 
 
We have to ask ourselves: how do we put out fires while also sowing seeds? How do we respond to these crises while also conducting proactive education on these issues? 
 
As I mentioned before, people tend to feel skeptical about free speech work because of the power dynamics that are typically associated with free speech. The reason it’s so important for PEN America to fight these power dynamics and work to create equity in the free speech space is because the freedom of speech is the most powerful asset we have in our toolkit of democracy to stand up against authoritarianism and oppression. 
 
Essentially, the most challenging part about this work is being present and active and responsive during such a difficult time. But it’s during difficult times that being active becomes most important.
 
Q: Where can people go to get involved with PEN America projects?
 
We are a membership organization that originally started with a network of writers. Our membership network evolved over time to open up to the general public and we have a student membership available as well. 
 
You can check out our website to learn more about our membership programs. Becoming a PEN America member is the best way to learn about events and initiatives we have going on.
 
If you’re primarily interested in learning more about the Campus Free Speech realm, our office has created a Campus Free Speech Guide with a compilation of advice that we give professionally at our workshops at schools around the country.
 
If you’re interested in future institutes and webinars, you can email campusfreespeech@pen.org to be added to the mailing list.

 
This article is intended to convey generally useful information only and does not constitute legal advice. Any opinions expressed are solely those of the author, not LawChamps.
Monique Bolsajian

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