2021 Winter Free Speech Advocacy Institute

Designed for talented and ambitious students, PEN America’s Free Speech Advocacy Institute aims to equip the rising generation to become forceful advocates for free speech and civil liberties, on campus and beyond. The Institute organizes educational programs and public events for students about free speech in the U.S. and abroad, promoting a philosophy that all people have the right to share, impart, and receive ideas and information in the service of a more equal and just democratic society.

Winter 2021 Institute

Campus Free Speech Project Featured Image Photo Creidt Jasmina Tomic

Consisting of weekly evening workshops, PEN America’s Free Speech Advocacy Institute is a virtual program offered by expert legal and policy practitioners from PEN America to introduce high school and college students to key topics and skills in free speech advocacy. Students learn how to respond to threats to free speech including disinformation, hate, and censorship, as well as how to advocate for their rights and the rights of others. Students cap their experience by working in small groups to design a free speech advocacy campaign on an issue of their choosing, and receive a certificate of professional achievement in free speech advocacy from PEN America. See past projects and frequently asked questions.

Dates: Tuesdays, January 19–March 9, 2021

Time: 4:30pm–6:30pm ET

Cost: $1000
*financial aid available

Apply for the Winter Institute!

The application deadline has been extended to Wednesday, January 13. Admissions and financial aid awards will be announced on a rolling basis.

If you have any questions, please email [email protected].


Topics Covered in Our Program

  • Introduction to Free Speech and the First Amendment
  • Creative Expression Under Threat Globally
  • Disinformation and Censorship on Social Media
  • Local News and Press Freedom
  • Essential Elements of an Advocacy Campaign
  • Protest Rights and Civil Disobedience
  • Hate and Free Speech in Schools and Universities
  • Free Speech in Everyday Life
Christina Wocintechchat Com LqPLmYD MO8 Unsplash

PEN America’s Free Speech Live!

Free, Optional Program Supplement
PEN America’s Free Speech Live! is a biweekly gathering for students on Wednesdays discussing current events related to free speech, open exchange, human rights, and democracy. These events provide excellent supplemental programming to the Institute where students can hear from more guest experts, tune into a debate, and be prepared to ask questions and discuss pressing free speech issues with more students.

The Knight Foundation is an official sponsor of PEN America’s Free Speech Advocacy Institute this winter.

Knight Foundation logo

Student Testimonials

“I think the Institute has helped me curb my cynicism toward these issues. Seeing the work that PEN and others do, learning about funding, and having the opportunity to craft my own campaign made me realize that there is tons of work that we can do to in the face of free expression challenges. Believing that we can’t take on these challenges only plays into the hands of oppressive regimes.”

“As an organizer, I am constantly learning and picking up skills on how to better advocate for causes that are close to my heart. The Institute has imparted so much knowledge and has allowed me to see what advocacy from a grander scale (national/international) looks like. I have learned more ways to advocate and ways to improve upon the advocacy techniques I have been using.”

“I personally thought that free expression is sort of dangerous because of the possibility of fascist and hateful speech permeating in liberal discourse. But now, I see the harm in censoring certain speech and thinking in those terms. Instead, I believe we should combat this with truth and storytelling.

Past Guest Speakers

Suzanne Nossel

Suzanne Nossel

CEO of PEN America, Nossel has served in leadership positions throughout the U.S. government and across the advocacy sector.
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Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan

Former president of PEN America, Egan is a Pultizer-Prize winning writer who has served on the board of PEN America since 2012.
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Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen

An acclaimed journalist and author of ten books, Gessen serves as vice president of PEN America and is an outspoken critic of authoritarianism globally.
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Nora Benavidez

Nora Benavidez

PEN America's director of U.S. free expression programs, Benavidez is a former civil and human rights litigator with extensive experience in free expression issues nationally.
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Summer Lopez

Summer Lopez

Senior director of free expression programs at PEN America, Lopez has experience in government and NGOs promoting democracy and human rights in the U.S. and abroad.
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Thomas Melia

Thomas Melia

PEN America's Washington director, Melia has held senior posts in the State Department and at USAID, as well as at numerous NGOs and nonprofits.
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Neijma Celestine-Donnor

Neijma Celestine-Donnor

Assistant dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Celestine-Donnor is a licensed clinical social work supervisor with years of experience in trauma services.
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Julie Trébault

Julie Trébault

Director of PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection, Trébault is a highly respected leader in the art world who defends artists at risk worldwide.
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Institute Co-Directors

Jonathan Friedman headshot

Jonathan Friedman

Director of PEN America’s Free Speech Advocacy Institute, Friedman is an expert in U.S. higher education with over a decade of experience teaching at the college level.

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Nicholas Perez headshot

Nicholas Perez

Co-director of PEN America’s Free Speech Advocacy Institute, Perez is a former U.N. human rights educator and high school instructor of international affairs, public speaking, and Model U.N.

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Sample Projects from Summer 2020

During the Summer 2020 Institute, students worked in groups to simulate PEN America’s team and develop a mock advocacy campaign for a free speech issue of their choice. Five of the groups were selected by PEN America staff for the thoroughness and creativity of their projects, which included plans for social media, fundraising, and lobbying both domestically and internationally.

Saudi Women Deserve The Mic

Saudi Women Deserve the Mic, Digital Freedom is Their Right (College)

Aysha Khan, Anandi Barker, Janaee’ Sykes, and Fahmida Tafader

This advocacy campaign planned to raise awareness about women’s rights to free speech online in Saudi Arabia, delineating potential partner organizations, fundraisers, a social media campaign, and metrics by which to measure their success. This group has also created a public petition on Change.org for the release of Saudi women’s rights activist Nassima Al-Sadah from prison.

No Voices Detained

No Voices Detained (High School)

Maxwell Coryell, Emma Hotchkiss, Aviva Lehman, Andrew Hurtado-Ramirez, Lauren Vu, and Tim Zhilin

This advocacy project sought to bolster the free speech rights of undocumented immigrants through education initiatives, holding ICE personnel accountable for their actions and creating a platform for undocumented immigrants to share their stories anonymously. The group drafted a social media marketing campaign and developed plans for a partnership with Spotify to raise public awareness about this issue.

Free Expression Rights For American High School Students

Free Expression Rights for American High School Students (High School)

Natalie Del Valle, Rebekah Oppenheimer, Lila Sharp, Gianna-Paula Wolf, and Yehuda Zilberstein

This campaign proposed developing a handbook for U.S. high school students to consult on free speech issues, alongside an advocacy effort to encourage students and staff to respect free speech rights in schools. This group also explored potential partnerships with the NCAC and ACLU and developed a social media campaign to increase online engagement.

Press Freedom And The Black Lives Matter Movement

Press Freedom and the Black Lives Matter Movement (High School)

Charlotte Hampton, Julian Lane, Tália Rangel, and Isabel Tribe

In response to the recent Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, this advocacy campaign sought to better protect the journalists covering these protests. This group proposed to establish preventative measures and donation-based support systems for journalists’ immediate and emergency needs, as well as pass the Journalist Protection Act, an existing bill designed to impose legal consequences for targeting journalists. This group has formally assembled as “Teens for Press Freedom.” You can visit their website, follow them on Instagram @protectthepress, and sign their online petition to pass the Journalist Protection Act.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is eligible to register?
The program is open to students in any year of high school or college.

Who should consider applying?
The Institute is ideal for students interested in pursuing academic and professional careers in the humanities, human rights, journalism, international affairs, law, political science, and the social sciences.

Do I have to be American to participate?
No. The Institute will be accessible to students anywhere in the world, via Zoom, and taught in English. Students must be available to attend all meeting sessions, which are listed in Eastern Time.

How will I know if I’ve been admitted?
Once you submit your application for admission, you will receive an email confirmation with a copy of your form responses.

Is there financial aid available?
Yes. PEN America awards need-based financial aid ranging from $250 to $1,000 to be put toward the total cost of attendance ($1,000).

Will I receive any school credit for the Institute?
PEN America will award each student a Certificate of Professional Achievement in Free Speech Advocacy upon completion of the course. The program will offer excellent preparation and a relevant credential for future internships and work opportunities in the policy and advocacy realm. Neither high school nor college credit will be granted for completing the Institute.

Will there be any homework assigned?
Background readings will be assigned that students are expected to complete before the start of each session. These readings will serve as the basis for each day’s discussion session. In the second half of the program, students will be expected to collaborate outside of instructional hours on their free speech advocacy campaigns.

What supplies do I need to attend the Institute?
To participate in the Institute, students must have a working computer, a reliable internet connection, an email address through which they can access Google Drive, and a Zoom account, which can be set up for free online. A notebook to write in as well as some writing utensils are also recommended for note-taking, and a printer is optional for printing out the reading materials for annotating.

Who are the instructors?
The Institute is directed by Jonathan Friedman and Nicholas “Niko” Perez. The daily schedule will include presentations from a wide range of experts and professionals across PEN America, including seasoned researchers, advocates, attorneys, and campaigners.

What will students do for the advocacy campaign project?
Students will work in small groups to select an advocacy issue and develop a unique campaign, applying the skills learned through the Institute.