PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel testified that the rise in educational gag orders and “escalating battle for control over free expression in education should worry us all.” 

Nossel testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development in a hearing titled, “Diversity of Thought: Protecting Free Speech on College Campuses.”

Statement of Suzanne Nossel

Chief Executive Officer, PEN America

March 29, 2023

Chairman Owens, Ranking Member Wilson, and distinguished members of the Subcommittee and Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

I am a daughter of immigrants, a mother of a college freshman and high school sophomore, attorney by training, and proud American who has served in two presidential administrations. PEN America, which I have led for a decade, stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression worldwide. We are a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with an unwavering commitment to free speech, a principle that underpins democracy and a cause above politics.

We at PEN America have worked on issues related to campus speech since 2016. The university campus is the incubator of democratic citizenship and the breeding ground for leaders in every sector of society. If we don’t get free speech and open discourse right on campus, we won’t get it right in the media, the courts, or out on the streets.

Our work in this area grew from concerns that a rising generation was turning its back on the principles of free speech. We learned of lecturers canceled or shouted down. Faculty have been targeted by threats and harassment for things they have said, receiving tepid support and sometimes none at all.

Students often lack awareness of the First Amendment or the precepts of academic freedom, sometimes believing that the best answer to noxious ideas is to drown them out, or to call on university authorities to shut them down. At PEN America we argue that the essential drive to render American campuses more diverse, equitable, and inclusive need not — and must not — come at the expense of robust, uncompromising protections for free speech and academic freedom. I have written a book Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, which centers on 20 principles for how we can live together in our diverse, digitized, and divided society without curbing free speech.

A central insight of our work in this area is that an open campus must uphold the ability of all students to participate freely and fully. If some students, by virtue of their background, gender, race, nationality, religion, or political views feel hindered from speaking up in class or voicing their opinions, the marketplace of ideas suffers.

Sometimes calls to curtail or punish speech are borne out of a frustration that campuses or society at large have not done enough to address the lingering vestiges of racial, gender and other forms of exclusion. While such efforts to suppress speech are misguided, they cannot be effectively addressed without looking at what motivates them.

Since 2021, alongside these challenges we have confronted a new threat to open discourse on campus. We have documented proposed and enacted state legislation curtailing what can be taught and studied in college and university classrooms. There are seven laws across seven states that we classify as educational gag orders affecting higher education; we define educational gag orders as laws that explicitly limit what can be taught and studied on campus. As of March 16, there were an additional 24 higher education bills pending in 15 states across the country.

The wording of these gag orders is deliberately vague, casting a willful chill on a wide swath of speech as faculty and administrators struggle to understand where the lines are drawn.

Collectively, these bills are illiberal in their attempt to legislate that certain ideas and concepts are out of bounds. They are intended not to keep speech open, but to put universities on notice that they are being watched and will face the consequences if their decisions fall afoul of politics. Indeed, in pushing back against orthodoxies the proponents of these measures have embraced and surpassed the very tactics they claim to decry, putting the weight not only of social pressure, but of government power, behind efforts to repress certain viewpoints.

This year, we are also seeing a spate of alarming new tactics being introduced to curtail open discourse on campus. These include the takeover of the public New College of Florida by a group of out-of-state trustees and the advancement of HB 999 in Florida, which would abolish certain courses of study. Those who believe in the First Amendment understand that its essence lies in restricting the power of government to meddle in the marketplace of ideas not in inserting the heavy hand of the state to dictate what can and cannot be taught.

Escaping this escalating tit-for-tat battle of assaults on speech on U.S. campuses will demand leadership. University presidents need to insist and ensure that all viewpoints — left and right alike — get a fair hearing on campus. They need to speak up and resist intrusive legislation that micromanages curriculum and undercuts academic freedom. Efforts to foster diversity, equity and inclusion on campus should span the gamut of individual differences – racial, socio-economic, religious, ethnic, ideological, gender-based, political and more.

We also need to introduce the norms and ideals of free speech to all students and teach them how to uphold it whether in the lecture hall or while mounting a protest.

This escalating battle for control over free expression in education should worry us all. The greatest casualty in this battle may be neither progressive nor conservative ideas, but the principle of free speech itself.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I welcome your questions.

Read the full testimony for the record by Suzanne Nossel.