NEW YORK—In order to clarify circumstances around the cancellation of a panel discussion at Columbia University in which a PEN America staff member was scheduled to participate, PEN America released the statement below: 

“PEN America learned today that a planned event on the rule of law in Turkey in which one of our staff members was scheduled to participate has been cancelled by Columbia University. PEN America was not involved in conceiving or organizing the event, assembling the panel, nor consulted in the decision to cancel. Our staff member, Karin Karlekar, Director of Freedom of Expression At-Risk Programs, was contacted on Thursday March 28 and asked to take part in an event being co-sponsored by the Human Rights Foundation, Columbia University’s Global Freedom of Expression program, Columbia Law School Institute, and the International Commission of Jurists. She was told the invitation was being issued late because another panelist, Agnes Callamard, Director of the Global Freedom of Expression Program, had to drop out due to a scheduling conflict. Subsequently, our logo was added to the event program.

We have spoken to organizers about the decision to cancel this event. We understand that in recent weeks event participants and organizers began to have serious reservations about the composition of the panel for the event, believing that it reflected an insufficient breadth of Turkish voices. Efforts to add an adequately diverse set of Turkish perspectives to the line-up were apparently not fully successful, and we understand that there were intensifying concerns that important viewpoints would not be represented. We also understand that late last week Columbia was approached by a representative of the Turkish government who expressed objections to the planned event and the views that would be reflected in the discussion. We received word of the cancellation today. We understand that Columbia intends to reschedule the event with a panel that includes a broader representation of Turkish viewpoints.

As an organization dedicated to the defense of freedom of expression and one that has been deeply involved in issues of free speech on university campuses, we are concerned that the outreach from the Turkish government may have played any role at all in Columbia’s decision to cancel the panel. While there may have been valid grounds to reconsider the make-up of the event and even to postpone it in order to ensure a more representative group of speakers, the direct intervention of the Turkish government in an effort to influence the event creates at the very least a perception that Columbia may have been influenced by Turkey in its decision to call off the event. The government of Turkey is notorious for its relentless crackdown on dissidents, writers, journalists, and scholars, including many who are university-affiliated. Government intrusions in university decision-making of this nature violate academic freedom and freedom of speech. Universities, scholars, and free speech defenders must be vigilant in resisting such interference and avoiding even the perception that decisions may be shaped by government pressure.”

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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. pen.org

CONTACT: Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Manager: agasparian@pen.org