Flashpoints: Educational Resource Hub

Beginning in late 2021 and continuing through 2023, PEN America and the American Historical Association (AHA) are co-hosting Flashpoints: Free Speech in American History, Culture and Society. This series presents the fascinating and complex history of free speech in American democracy to public audiences in cities across the country. The historical flashpoints highlight pivotal moments in which artists, activists, writers, filmmakers, and intellectuals tested the limits of free speech, challenging the public to redefine “freedom” and realize it anew for populations and causes that were at risk of having their liberties denied. 

This educational resource hub features videos, primary sources and further resources culled from the PEN America Digital Archive. In 2023 downloadable discussion guides tailored for middle school and high school educators will be included.

Flashpoints has been created in partnership with the American Historical Association: Everything has a history and made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom.

Flashpoints Scholar Advisors: Brett Gadsden, Jennifer Ho, Randall Kennedy, Greg Pardlo, Claire Potter, Geof Stone, Amy Werbel, and Jonathan Zimmerman.

Videos produced by Phatt Features

Free Speech & Political Dissent

Flashpoints: Chicago 2022

Free Speech & Political Dissent explores the question “How do we protect space for dissent?”

From “gag rules” prohibiting abolitionist views on the congressional floor to the Sedition Act of 1918; from Emma Goldman to obscenity laws, Americans have often pushed the boundaries of politically acceptable speech, and faced robust resistance.

Moderator: Brett Gadsden

Panelists: Barbara Krauthamer, Claire Potter, and Geoffrey R. Stone


Entangled Histories: Free Speech & Civil Rights from the 1960’s to Today

Entangled Histories explores the question, “How has the First Amendment been invoked to help or to hinder the progress of civil rights?”

This discussion examined how the mid-1960s were a turning point not only for the Civil Rights movement, but also for the history of free speech in the U.S. From the Civil Rights Act to landmark Supreme Court decisions, the boundaries of the First Amendment were tested in ways that affected civil rights in the decades following.

Moderator: DuJuana Thompson

Panelists: Carlos Ball, Michael Harriot, and Tara White


Flashpoints: Birmingham 2022

Restricted Access: The American History of Book Banning

Flashpoints: New York City 2022

Restricted Access explores the question, “What lies behind banning books in a country with free speech at its core?”

Censorship and book bans are nothing new in American life. This discussion explores the 19th century federal Comstock laws, along with the frequent banning of Toni Morrison books and LGBTQ books. 

Moderator: Ali Velshi

Panelists: Laurie Halse Anderson, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Whitney Strub, Amy Werbel