NEW YORK—Yesterday’s decision by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to ask NYU to postpone a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos was a misjudgment and overreaction that have only given Yiannopoulos undue attention, PEN America said in a statement today.

On Sunday, the New York Post reported that Michael Rectenwald, a professor of NYU’s Liberal Studies program, had invited Yiannopoulos to speak about the ‘politics of Halloween’ to his class of 14 students today. Rectenwald kept the invitation a secret, he stated, in the hope that Yiannopoulos’s appearance would avoid the protests which have marred other campuses. Despite outcries from within NYU and beyond concerning Yiannopoulos’s record of offensive speech, the university allowed the talk to go forward, stating that it did not endorse his views, but would fulfill its “commitment to the free exchange of ideas.” On Monday, Mayor deBlasio called on the university to postpone the event out of concern for public safety and a general assessment of risk completed by the NYPD, and the university complied.

“In postponing an invitation to Milo Yiannopoulos to speak to a writing class at NYU, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the university have overreacted, giving unnecessary fuel to his claims of censorship,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America Project Director for Campus Free Speech. “At a time when emotions are running high and new threats are surfacing, public officials face a difficult but critical challenge in avoiding the temptation to overreact. Unfortunately, the NYC Mayor appears to have let the pressure get the better of him. Neither the city nor the university cited evidence that Yiannopoulos’s appearance on campus before a class of just 14 students could not have been properly secured with other Halloween preparations taking place. Without substantiation of a genuine threat to safety, the city’s intervention fits into a troubling pattern of government officials calling upon private parties, including the NFL and news organizations, to police and punish speech. The cancellation (or, as NYU claims, postponement) of Yiannopoulos’s appearance plays into the hands of a provocateur who wants nothing more than to grandstand and claim that his speech rights have been denied. Both the City and the University are strong enough to withstand the challenge posed by offensive speakers like Yiannopoulos. Fact-based argument and peaceful counter-protest are far better approaches to handling noxious ideas than shutting them down.”  

PEN America has previously addressed the problem of cancelling controversial speakers once they have been invited to campus, as well as the need for public safety concerns surrounding such speakers to be properly addressed, in its 2016 report, And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Free Speech at U.S. UniversitiesThat report, and the incorporated PEN America Principles on Campus Speech, detail strategies for campus leaders to respond to controversies over speakers in ways that honor the rights of both invited speakers as well as those who wish to protest their presence. 

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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