NEW YORK—An increase in hate crimes, political polarization, and heightened racial tensions have created new challenges for free speech on campus, PEN America argues in a new report launched today, Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America. Coming in the wake of President Donald Trump’s March 24, 2019 Executive Order on campus speech, the report debunks the Administration’s constricted account of free speech threats emanating only from the left, and details an array of infringements on speech, both official and informal. The report and accompanying “PEN America Principles on Campus Free Speech” offer guidance to faculty, administrators, and student leaders on how robust protections for free speech can be reconciled with the need to forcefully address bias and bigotry.

Busting myths, caricatures, and misinformation that characterize much of the public discourse on campus free speech, this nearly 100-page original research report offers a hard-hitting analysis of more than 100 speech-related controversies of recent years, finding that many implicate tensions between free speech and equality and inclusion in the classroom, the dorm, and the quad. Bringing up to date the analysis in PEN America’s groundbreaking October 2016 report, And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Freedom of Speech at U.S. Universities, Chasm in the Classroom scrutinizes recent trends, including the rise of hateful speech and incidents of bigotry on campus; shutdowns and disinvitations of controversial speakers; outrage campaigns against faculty members for their speech; the mixed views of a new generation of students on issues of free speech and hate speech; and the perils and pitfalls of federal and state legislative measures purportedly aiming to protect free speech in polarized campus environments.

In Chasm in the Classroom, PEN America lays out concerns about threats to free speech on U.S. campuses, including attempts to limit the space for open debate and free expression. Chasm also features an updated set of PEN America’s “Principles on Campus Free Speech,” which offer cogent guidelines for students, faculty, and administrators on how to navigate fraught campus controversies in ways that ensure a robust defense of free speech while advancing diversity and inclusion.

“Far from taking place in isolation behind ivy-covered walls, today’s campus free speech controversies are inextricable from the social and political upheaval of this historical moment,” said PEN America Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Nossel. “While we have never thought that there was a crisis per se when it comes to campus speech, there are legitimate concerns about ideas and viewpoints that have become hard to voice amid a climate of intense ideological rancor. While President Trump has spotlighted threats to speech emanating from the left, our analysis reveals that intolerance of opposing views cuts across the political spectrum.”

“Working with college leaders to promote education, understanding, and dialogue will be key to ameliorating the deep polarization and distrust that have developed on college campuses,” said PEN America Campus Free Speech Project Director Jonathan Friedman. “We are at an inflection point where the risk is growing that today’s students will become alienated from the principles of free speech, wrongly believing that they do little more than provide cover for bigotry. As a new generation comes of age in a time of division and anxiety in our country, commentators, college administrators, and policymakers need to cultivate an understanding and appreciation of free speech as the bedrock of an open, democratic, and equitable society.”

Chasm in the Classroom is informed in part by four closed-door convenings PEN America held during the 2017-2018 academic year on campuses that had been flashpoints for free speech controversies: UC Berkeley; University of Virginia at Charlottesville, Middlebury College, and University of Maryland at College Park. PEN America brought together a diverse group of students, faculty, administrators, and other stakeholders for intensive face-to-face discussions, giving all stakeholders and perspectives their due and fostering empathy, understanding, and shared purpose across dividing lines.

Highlights of Chasm in the Classroom include:

  • Examination of the rise in hateful expression and intimidation on college campuses, and the challenges administrators face in responding to these incidents in ways that both foster inclusion and defend free speech
  • Analysis of shutdowns, shout-downs, disinvitations, speaker cancellations, and violent confrontations, and of the rise, seeming fall, and enduring impact of professional provocateurs’ appearances on campuses
  • An accounting of outrage campaigns against faculty members driven by both conservatives and liberals, and the implications for academic freedom
  • Breakdown of state and federal efforts to legislate protections for free speech on college campuses, including the role of the Justice Department in raising politicized and one-sided alarms over the state of free speech on campus
  • Review of research of U.S. students’ attitudes towards free speech, and a look at how debates over free speech are playing out on campuses in other countries, including in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada
  • Updated PEN America Principles on Campus Free Speech that account for the changing dynamics and challenges on campuses since the issuing of And Campus For All.

The full report can be found at

To learn more about PEN America’s work on campus free speech, please visit


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT: Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Manager: [email protected]