(NEW YORK)—PEN America today denounced the imposition of a “heckler’s veto” at the Medical College of Wisconsin this month, which reportedly canceled a symposium with scholar and activist John D. Sailer, an outspoken opponent of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

The symposium was canceled after students and faculty had organized a letter and petition calling for its cancellation, citing Sailer’s opposition to DEI initiatives on campus and saying that his presence would make some students feel unsafe. Following this letter, the president of the college rescinded use of school facilities for the symposium, stating that the event and the discourse on campus surrounding it had become “unacceptably disruptive.”

“The choice to rescind permission for this event sends a message that the exchange of ideas at the Medical College of Wisconsin is not truly free and must pass through an ideological litmus test,” said Jeremy C. Young, program director of the Freedom to Learn program at PEN America. “And canceling an event because the discourse about it is “disruptive” misunderstands the purpose of discourse itself. It is the essence of a heckler’s veto: denying someone the opportunity to speak because of the reactions it might incite.

“College leaders may fervently disagree with Sailer’s views on DEI initiatives in higher education, and amid the rising tide of state efforts to muzzle DEI work, those disagreements seem warranted. But college administrators also have an obligation to ensure that ideas they find disagreeable are protected as robustly as those they endorse. Without an opportunity for thorough debate and discussion, there is no way to consider and challenge ideas. Even as some state actors try to run roughshod over it, intellectual freedom must remain a bedrock principle of higher education and the key ingredient in preparing students for citizenship in a democratic society.”

About PEN America

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. To learn more visit PEN.org 

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057