PEN America Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Nossel delivered these remarks at the 2018 PEN America Literary Gala.

So, Jenny was saying earlier, PEN America’s preferred discourse leverages literature to unleash empathy and bind together hearts, minds, communities, and societies. 

That’s what we strive for, and what we thrive on. But literary life—and life in general—doesn’t always live up to the ideals in the PEN Charter.

Dialogue, reason, and compassion can come up short.

As the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School inParkland reminded us with their rallying cry, there can come a time to call BS. Now it’s not something to do lightly. Especially not in an august venue like this, and with my mother here for the first time—she’s somewhere out there. But when the government was caught lying, the students of Parkland felt compelled to call it out. These students are not alone. When an organization’s lifeblood is truth and facts, we cannot mince words when it comes to falsehood.

So, when our president professes to respect press freedom but denigrates the media, cries fake news, and threatens to withdraw press credentials for coverage he dislikes, we call BS.

And it’s not just the government.

When an avowed white nationalist dons the mantle of free speech to intimidate others into silence, we call BS.

When a broadcast conglomerate claims to be objective but then force feeds its anchors a script that discredits credible news sources, we call BS.

Now some people say a writers’ organization shouldn’t be political. That’s a longstanding debate at PEN. Exactly 80 years ago PEN met in Prague as the Nazis swallowed the Sudetenland. PEN’s then-president, French novelist Jules Romains, addressed skeptics: “An association of writers does not wish to engage in politics,” he said, “but we cannot stand idly by when the most basic individual rights are being threatened.” Bertolt Brecht sent a telegram with a single sentence, “Fight, and those who dither will fight with you.” Thomas Mann came to Madison Square Garden and proclaimed that it was too late for governments to save the peace: “They have lost too many opportunities. Now it is the people’s turn.”

In the days after their classmates were shot dead, when Washington, D.C., offered only thoughts and prayers, the students of Parkland, Florida, echoed Thomas Mann: The lawmakers have lost too many opportunities. Now it is the people’s turn.   

They sent shock waves through the self-righteous, embarrassed the equivocators, and made politicians pay for their unsavory patronage. They decided to fight, and—as Brecht foretold—those who had dithered joined the fight with them. They took to TV studios, streets, schoolyards, statehouses, the Mall in Washington, and are leading the charge to the voting booth in November.

Their movement’ds not about one student, one family, one school, or one state. The pupils of Parkland joined with teens of all races, ethnicities, and ideologies in Trenton, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C.  

One day they sat in calculus class and drama club—I met Sam Fuentes earlier this morning; she told me she waitressed her way through high school. They were doodling and daydreaming like any other high school students. But weeks later they had scored passage of a historic new Florida gun control law and led the largest student protest in American history. If that driving potency lay within each of them, we must ask what potential lies within each of us. 

At a time when democracy around the world is in retreat and our trusted policy sages are warning of an ascendant authoritarianism, it shouldn’t take a gunshot to shatter our sense of complacency.  

Free expression is not just an absence of government constraint. It’s a clamor of opinions, visions, insights, and demands. A robust marketplace for ideas depends on those willing to raise a ruckus.  

For free expression amid controversy isn’t actually cost free. These young activists have been called paid actors, endured scurrilous accusations, vitriolic insults, and death threats. Trolling and scare tactics can feel especially menacing when they come from the gun lobby. Free expression courage in our era can mean risking your privacy, your reputation, and even your life for what you believe.

Please join me in watching a short profile of courage in free expression.