A Response to Aaron Freedman

Last week, Aaron Freedman wrote for the Prospect that the loudest online promoters of “free speech” were being funded by the Koch network and were concerned primarily with making room for conservative thought and suppressing the voices of everyone else. PEN America, a nonprofit coalition of writers dedicated to free expression, asked to write a reaction. We publish that here, with Aaron Freedman also responding.

A piece by Aaron Freedman in The American Prospect last week made the case that there is a “free speech movement” attacking college campuses, funded by the Koch brothers and motivated by conservative political and ideological aims. The piece lays out some of the contemporary landscape of actors concerned with campus free speech; but it is an incomplete picture.

Our organization, PEN America, firmly believes—as Freedman also implies—that the defense of free speech should not be a partisan issue. We do not deny that for some it has become just that; indeed, we have spoken previously about the Trump administration’s one-sided expressions of concern about free speech on campuses. But it is important to point out that even as some have been drawn into an ideological crusade, many advocates believe free speech is a universal right and a vital civic norm—the bedrock of an open, democratic society. That conviction animates the advocacy of many individuals and organizations, and it continues to undergird PEN America’s efforts, which are guided by a mandate to both celebrate free expression and defend the civil liberties that make it possible.

Our organization has been actively programming on the issue of campus free speech for the past four years. We have published two landmark reports: And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Free Speech at U.S. Universities (2016) and Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America (2019). We have spoken out in the media; testified in front of Congress; advocated against troubling provisions in campus speech legislation; and engaged directly to foster open dialogue in diverse campus communities, including through in-depth convenings on the future of free speech at the University of California, BerkeleyMiddlebury College, and the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. We have taken a principled approach to these matters, defending the speech rights of conservatives and progressives alike. We do not receive Koch funding, nor are we seeking it.

PEN America’s approach to this work rests on the belief that campuses can and must find ways to balance robust protections for free speech with the goal of advancing diversity and inclusion. We believe this is not only the right thing to do, but that it is critical to ensure a rising generation of progressive students are not alienated from the virtues of free expression. We have published a set of Principles on Campus Free Speech that illustrate what such an approach can look like in practice.

The absence in Freedman’s piece of any reference to our work in this area, or that of individuals and organizations with similar viewpoints, risks giving readers the wrong impression that free speech on campus has been a concern only of conservatives, and that it has been driven only by ideology rather than by, for some, a deep interest in ensuring campuses are open and equitable spaces for all. In fact, numerous constitutional experts, college presidents, social scientists, humanists, and others have been outspoken on these issues, and a range of groups are now working to improve civic education about the First Amendment, and to improve the climate for free speech for all on campus. We have partnered with some of them, including FIRE, the NCAC, and the ACLU, to defend the free-expression rights of studentsprofessors, and artists. To suggest that these efforts are all ideologically driven mischaracterizes this wider landscape of activity.

At PEN America, we do not believe that campuses are experiencing a unique crisis separate from the tensions and fissures pulling apart American society at large. But the threats to free expression in the U.S. today—on campus and off—are indeed real. This is why PEN America began work on these issues four years ago. This is why our work on this issue continues.

Jonathan Friedman is project director for campus free speech at PEN America. Summer Lopez is senior director of free expression programs at PEN America.


Aaron Freedman responds:

I appreciate Jonathan Friedman and Summer Lopez’s letter to the editor expressing their opinion and concerns about my piece. Indeed, contrary to what is frustratingly and incorrectly implied in their letter, I am quite aware of the importance of free speech and debate. And, as a writer on politically controversial topics at a time when the White House regularly launches partisan attacks on the press, the freedom of speech is one that I personally depend on.

Obviously, I do not think all free-speech advocacy is partisan and in bad faith. And of course, there are plenty of free-speech advocates who are not in the pocket of right-wing billionaires. It is important to remember that the left has historically led the fight for free speech in this country, from fighting against the Red Scares of the 1910s and 1950s to litigating the First Amendment’s protection of flag burning.

But, regrettably, good-faith free-speech advocates are simply not getting the same attention as the individuals and organizations I wrote about in my piece. I singled out the web of those affiliated with and promoting the “Intellectual Dark Web” because they not only drive the public discussion of free speech today—particularly on college campuses—but use an alleged nonpartisanship to mask their political motivations.

In fact, one of the most pernicious aspects of this group of advocates is that they have been largely silent on—if not outright supportive of—the suppression of speech on the left. I invite Friedman, Lopez, and interested readers to look at the concerning examples of censorship I cited in my piece. Far from dismissing concerns about free speech, I raise those that have been marginalized by well-funded internet and media personalities.

Had PEN America read my piece more closely, they would have recognized that a laundry list of their campus programs dressed up to look like a response was not warranted. But I do respect their right to freedom of speech.

Aaron Freedman is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter at @freedaaron.

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