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Educational Gag Orders: A Virtual Roundtable

PEN America’s recent report, Educational Gag Orders: Legislative Restrictions on the Freedom to Read, Learn and Teach, chronicles the alarming spread of legislative efforts in 2021 to constrict education on topics related to race, gender, and American history. This represents a censorious drive to impose viewpoint and content-based restrictions on freedom of speech and thought, which is having a chilling effect on teachers, professors, and trainers. In this virtual roundtable, a diverse range of experts tracking these developments will react to the report and the concerning issues it raises related to free speech and academic freedom.



Jonathan Friedman headshotJonathan Friedman is the director of free expression and education at PEN America, where he oversees advocacy, analysis, and outreach to educational communities and academic institutions. In this role, he drives forward PEN America’s efforts to catalyze a more informed, civic culture through free expression education for the rising generation and the general public. Friedman served as lead author on PEN America’s 2019 report, Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America, and on the production of its digital Campus Free Speech Guide. He regularly provides commentary on campus free speech issues for national news media and has facilitated workshops and conducted advisory meetings with students, faculty, and administrators at dozens of colleges and universities across the United States.


Sumi Cho headshotSumi Cho came out of retirement to serve as the director of strategic initiatives leading the #TruthBeTold campaign for the African American Policy Forum (AAPF). Prior to joining AAPF, she taught critical race theory and race, racism and U.S. law for 25 years along with other traditional law classes at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago. In 2017, she was awarded the university’s highest excellence in teaching award. She was also the inaugural recipient of the Derrick A. Bell Distinguished Service Award from the Association of American Law Schools’ Section on Minority Groups. Cho speaks nationally on issues of affirmative action, sexual harassment, intersectionality, multiracial politics, and coalitions and critical theory. She holds a Ph.D. in ethnic studies as well as a J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

Kmele Foster headshotKmele Foster is a media entrepreneur, commentator, and civil liberties advocate. He’s a cofounder of Freethink, an award-winning media company whose content explores the intersections of culture and political change, innovation and human progress, and barriers to civic discourse. Foster is a regular contributor to numerous national media outlets and co-hosts the prominent media criticism podcast, “The Fifth Column.” In addition to his work in media and commentary, Foster has previously helmed ventures in the technology, communications, and consumer goods industries. He currently serves as an advisor to numerous organizations, including the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Higher Ground.

James Grossman headshotJames Grossman is the executive director of the American Historical Association. Formerly vice president for research and education at the Newberry Library, he has taught at The University of Chicago and University of California San Diego. The author of Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration and A Chance to Make Good: African-Americans, 1900-1929, Grossman was project director and coeditor of the print and digital Encyclopedia of Chicago. He is editor emeritus of the University of Chicago Press book series Historical Studies of Urban America, which he abandoned to his colleagues after 50 volumes. His work has focused on urban history, African American history, ethnicity, higher education, and the place of history in public culture, with pieces in The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, TIME, New York Daily News, Northshore Magazine, Chronicle of Higher Education, The Hill, and elsewhere. Grossman’s consulting experience includes history-related projects generated by BBC, Smithsonian, and various theater companies, films, museums, libraries, and foundations. Currently president of the National Humanities Alliance, he has served on governing boards of the American Council of Learned Societies, Association of American Colleges & Universities, Center for Research Libraries, Vivian G. Harsh Society, and Chicago Metro History Education Center.

Mike Hixenbaugh headshotMike Hixenbaugh is a nationally award-winning writer and investigative reporter based in Houston and co-host of the NBC News podcast “Southlake.” He’s reported from France, Vietnam, Bahrain, Italy, and aboard warships at sea. He’s been listed among America’s best young journalists as a Livingston Award finalist four out of the last five years, and in 2018, he was named the top newspaper reporter in Texas. That same year, his coverage of Hurricane Harvey was recognized as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in breaking news reporting. His investigative work following a deadly Navy helicopter crash in 2014—including a longform narrative and TV segment that appeared on NBC News—led to the grounding of more than 150 helicopters and changes to improve safety. His work has been co-published with NBC, ProPublica, and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, where he completed a yearlong reporting fellowship. Hixenbaugh lives in Houston with his wife and four children.

Randall Kennedy headshotRandall L. Kennedy is Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School, where he teaches courses on contracts, criminal law, and the regulation of race relations. He was born in Columbia, SC. For his education, he attended St. Albans School, Princeton University, Oxford University, and Yale Law School. He served as a law clerk for Judge J. Skelly Wright of the United States Court of Appeals and for Justice Thurgood Marshall of the United States Supreme Court. He is a member of the bar of the District of Columbia and the Supreme Court of the United States. Awarded the 1998 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for Race, Crime, and the Law, Kennedy writes for a wide range of scholarly and general interest publications.

Suzanne Nossel headshot

Suzanne Nossel is Chief Executive Officer at PEN America and author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All. Prior to joining PEN America, she served as the Chief Operating Officer of Human Rights Watch and as Executive Director of Amnesty International USA. She has served in the Obama Administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, leading US engagement in the UN and multilateral institutions on human right issues, and in the Clinton Administration as Deputy to the US Ambassador for UN Management and Reform. Nossel coined the term “Smart Power,” which was the title of a 2004 article she published in Foreign Affairs Magazine and later became the theme of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tenure in office. She is a featured columnist for Foreign Policy magazine and has published op-eds in The New York TimesWashington Post, and LA Times, as well as scholarly articles in Foreign AffairsDissent, and Democracy, among others. Nossel serves on the Board of Directors of the Tides Foundation. She is a former senior fellow at the Century Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Nossel is a magna cum laude graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Law School.

Ashley Hope Pérez headshotAshley Hope Pérez is the author of three novels: Out of Darkness (2015), The Knife and the Butterfly (2012), and What Can’t Wait (2011). Out of Darkness was described by The New York Times Book Review as a “layered tale of color lines, love and struggle in an East Texas oil town,” and was selected as a best book of the year by both Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal. It received a 2016 Michael L. Printz Honor for Literary Excellence in Young Adult Fiction, the 2016 Tomás Rivera Book Award, and the 2016 Américas Award. What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly appear on YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults and Popular Paperbacks lists. Pérez grew up in Texas and taught high school in Houston before pursuing a doctorate in comparative literature. She is currently assistant professor of world literatures at The Ohio State University.

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