Photo credit to Lorenzo Riboni

A speaker from PEN America, with a background working in civil liberties, addressed the controversial topic of free speech and safe spaces at universities utilizing a PEN America report that came out last year.

On Thursday morning at William Penn Union,  Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, gave a lecture regarding the PEN America’s 2016 report: And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Free Speech at U.S. Universities. According to their organization’s website PEN America Center is a literary, and free expression advocacy organization that “stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide”.

Nossel and the report from PEN America outlined what she describes as the limits of free speech on campus and the challenges that universities face with the introduction of safe spaces, a rise in hate speech and hate crime, and changing demographics on campuses. Three groups were discussed in these conflicts — the university administrators and faculty, free speech advocates and those students who feel that racism and hate speech should be shut down completely.

Milo Yiannopoulos, a provocateur that speaks on college campuses, was brought up by Nossel several times to highlight the challenges universities face when trying to keep their campuses open to free expression while at the same time keeping campus a safe environment for students who feel targeted by controversial speakers. Milo who, per Nossel, “make[s] a name for himself by disparaging others”, was slated to speak at Berkeley until the situation became a danger for students and was cancelled. On this it was stated that “[universities] have a dual role of fostering an open environment but also standing for particular values.”

Nossel stated that part of the reason open discourse on universities faces new challenges is due to changing demographics and that soon we will live in a “country where, at least numerically, white people are just another racial minority” and that due to this shift, institutions that were created for a specific group of people must change. “Can a student organization exclude critics of Black Lives Matter?” … “Should all male clubs exist?” are among the questions she has for universities and their students.

“Students demand safety from words, ideas and each other. Critics argue that safety has no place in academic life.” PEN principles on campus speech approaches this dilemma first, by drawing three distinctions. The need to keep students physically safe, the need to protect students from pervasive speech which has intent to damage and the more general desire to avoid upsetting debates. Nossel stated that PEN believes physical safety is clearly essential. Emotional and psychological harm is something to be taken seriously, and a safe place for students to gather away from anything that can cause such harm is a legal right (freedom of association). Nossel feels that the hard question that arises is what form do these groups take or what spaces are declared safe from opposing ideas. Addressing those that believe in the idea of the university as a safe space she made the statement: “Insisting that the campus as a whole or even a whole entire residential college or dorm be kept safe from all forms of harm would create a hermetically sealed intellectual environment”

After the lecture a conversation took place, one member of the audience was concerned when he heard that there was a growing resentment toward the first amendment among people who felt they were victims of offensive speech. Nossel responded that she understands the resentment because many of the people that are victims of such speech feel, not only that people from their ethnic or racial background were not represented in the creation of the constitution, but that the major “defense of the first amendment and related protections on campus has been principally the work of libertarian and more right leaning organizations”… “[and so] a lot of the cases that have come up are around racially or sexually offensive speech and the protection of that [type of speech]”.

When asked why she believes that students feel they aren’t safe and will be less safe on campuses in the future, she stated that there is a sense that views at the margins have been invited closer to the mainstream citing recent political developments such as the former editor of Breitbart being in the White House and the legitimization of right wing media outlets. She also spoke of a rise of hate speech and hate crime since the election mentioning online trolling and a spread of offensive posters on campus. A statement she made during the lecture makes clear Suzanne Nossel’s feelings on the subject: “I was very struck by meeting some of these student activists of color on kind of how targeted they felt in Barack Obama’s America, how is it going to feel after a few years of Donald Trump’s America?” … “it’s going to become significantly more difficult.”

Prior to her time as the executive director of PEN American Center, Ms. Nossel served as Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, Deputy Assistant Secretary of state for the Bureau of International and Organization Affairs during the Obama administration, and Deputy to the Ambassador for the UN.

Lorenzo Riboni is a writer for The Pitt Maverick, writing for various sections on the site.