In a recent opinion editorial in the Washington Post, PEN America claimed campus free speech protection laws in Alabama and Texas infringe on the freedom of speech, instead of protecting free speech. The editorial, co-written by PEN America project director Jonathan Friedman and project assistant Soraya Ferdman, is rife with mischaracterizations of the free speech protection laws. Interestingly enough, the editorial did not mention the state of South Dakota, which passed a law protecting ideological diversity on state university campuses.
As background, PEN America is the New York City-based American chapter of the international Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, Novelists organization, which has a branch in London. PEN America is hardly an advocate for neutral, fair, and free speech, as its press room homepage is littered with anti-Trump propaganda. Specifically, PEN America’s press room homepage has links to articles in Slate and other liberal outlets which slam President Donald Trump over his treatment of the media, which the group apparently agrees with. In one of its links, the group noted that it is a plaintiff in a pending lawsuit known as PEN America v. Donald J. Trump because. PEN alleges, “the president has been engaged in an unconstitutional campaign to silence dissent by using the regulatory powers of the federal government to punish media he doesn’t like.”
The organization claimed through “original research, campus convenings, and public programs, PEN America has taken the lead on a nuanced defense of free speech on college campuses that focuses on raising awareness of the First Amendment, engaging with a diversity of campus stakeholders, and fostering constructive dialogue across difference that upholds the free speech rights of all.” However, it does not define “nuanced defense of free speech.”
PEN America’s claimed that the free speech protection laws focused on how the laws “could chill counter-speech and dissent.” PEN America admitted that the clauses in the Alabama and Texas laws could protect speakers, college student groups, and college administrators from a “heckler’s veto,” whereby heckling protesters disrupt a speech or event by shouting over the event speaker and hosts. The group also conceded “students can go too far in disrupting speakers,” providing a link to an article, but did not mention specifics, as if to hide how violent heckler’s veto protests can become. But the group claimed its vagueness “risks creating a mechanism for administrators to suppress legitimate speech.” Instead of defending everyone’s right to speech and assembly, PEN America claimed these laws create a “’speaker’s veto,’ whereby one set of speakers can use the threat of discipline to chill those who speak out against them.”
But, their point on a heckler’s veto is fallible because a heckler’s veto is disrupting someone else’s free speech. Therefore, a heckler’s veto is violating the First Amendment. Yet, PEN America felt the need to come to the aid of heckling protesters, who have disrupted speaking engagements at Middlebury College (which also resulted in the assault of a professor who was a moderator), Rutgers University, and the University of Michigan, to name a few.
Their defense of hecklers and disruptive protesters begs the question: If one of their representatives were giving a speech and were interrupted, heckled, and threatened with violence on social media or in-person, would they bat an eye and defend the heckler’s veto?
PEN America appeared to be in favor of “free speech zones,” which the Texas and Alabama laws bar from existence on their college campuses. Free speech zones are physical spaces on college campuses that are specifically designated for groups or individuals to gather to display their First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and assembly. The group acknowledged that handling protests are a judgment call for administrators, depending on the circumstances, but added administrators’ incentives on free speech now rely on legislators who approve state university budgets.
The group cited an example of a protest in Arizona, where college students called Border Patrol agents “murder patrol” outside of the classroom that they were presenting in and defended the students’ right to free speech of name-calling. The editorial concluded and called college “a time for students to experiment, learn, and grow,” insinuating that loud, disruptive protests are a way for college students to mature and grow as adults.
In short, PEN America is mistaken for defending the right of a “heckler’s veto” in criticizing bans on free speech zones in Texas and Alabama. If PEN America put its anti-Trump liberalism aside, then it would recognize the safety and free speech concerns surrounding heckler’s veto-driven protests.