NEW YORK—As PEN America executive director Suzanne Nossel prepares to give Congressional testimony this morning on how to address anti-Semitism on college campuses, the free expression advocacy organization released a new whitepaper on state “campus free speech” bills and a federal proposal to regulate anti-Semitic speech at American universities. 

In “Wrong Answer: How Good Faith Attempts to Address Free Speech and Anti-Semitism on Campus Could Backfire,” PEN America speaks out in response to a spate of legislation and legislative proposals at the state level that are aimed to buttress free speech protections. Tennessee, North Carolina, and Wisconsin have, over the last six months, enacted comprehensive new campus speech laws with varied provisions. Similar proposals have been introduced or are under consideration in Michigan and Illinois.  In all, the PEN America whitepaper analyzes a dozen proposed or passed state bills. It also addresses the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, a bill that was passed in late 2016 by the U.S. Senate and is the subject of today’s hearing by the Judiciary Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives.

While the bills are intended to foster respect for civil rights and open expression, and contain certain elements that would advance these objectives, PEN America voiced concern about specific provisions that pose serious risks for free speech. With respect to state-level legislation aimed to enforce free speech protections on campus, the organization outlines concerns that “mandatory minimum” punishments—including year-long suspension or expulsion—for repeated conduct judged to interfere with vaguely-defined “expressive rights” could be used to deter and discipline peaceful protesters.  PEN America also raised concerns that the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which adopts a definition of anti-Semitic speech that the whitepaper says “invites schools to look at speech that is critical of Israeli policies as a possible violation of civil rights law,” could chill a broad range of campus discussion and expression, including speech that may encompass no anti-Semitic taint at all.

“We share the sense of urgency felt in Washington and at statehouses to address rising anti-Semitism, as well as other forms of hateful speech and serious encroachments on free expression on campus,” said Nossel. “But rather than passing new laws that could inadvertently fan the very tensions they seek to ameliorate, we urge policymakers to double down on enforcing existing civil rights laws and protections for free speech, as well as on civil measures like dialogue and education, that can help make our campuses open and inclusive learning environments for all.”

The whitepaper builds on PEN America’s October 2016 report And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Free Speech at U.S. Universities, which sets out a comprehensive analysis of the tensions that can arise as colleges reconcile the imperative of creating hospitable learning environments for students from all backgrounds while maintaining robust protections for free speech. 


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.


Sarah Edkins Lien, Director of Communications: sedkins@pen.org617-947-6512