PEN America hosted an author’s event in Los Angeles on Wednesday for the launch of writer and comedian Moshe Kasher’s new memoir, Subculture Vulture. The event was interrupted by protests that eventually prevented the programming from proceeding. While most protesters left after expressing themselves, one declined and was removed by security. We regret that this step had to be taken in order for the event to proceed.

Alongside many in the literary community, we mourn the immense loss of Palestinian lives in Gaza. We have paid tribute to writers and artists who have been killed in the conflict. 

As a free speech organization, we defend and uphold the right to protest. However, we are firm in the conviction that protesters – while they have a right to be heard – cannot be allowed to shout down, shut down, or obstruct the speech of others.

Allison Lee, Los Angeles director of PEN America said, “PEN America is a big tent organization that values, supports, and creates dialogue, including among writers who hold wide-ranging points of view.  When it comes to public events, the open exchange of ideas cannot devolve into an environment where only the loudest voices are heard. As we have stated in our published principles and reiterated regularly in statements and commentary over the years, when a speaker sparks controversy, those who object and wish to protest must have an opportunity to make their opinions known. But protesters cannot be permitted to impose a heckler’s veto that forecloses the ability of others to be heard. By doing so they impair the free speech rights of the original speaker as well as those who came to listen.”

PEN America had arranged this event to feature Kasher’s book, an account of his upbringing in a deaf and Jewish household, participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, and work in comedy; the memoir does not address politics or the conflict. He was joined in conversation by interlocutor Mayim Bialik, his close friend and colleague.

In the weeks prior to Wednesday night’s event, we had respectful exchanges with two authors who declined to participate in a separate PEN America event in Los Angeles because of Bialik’s commentary on the Israel/Hamas war and her participation in the upcoming Kasher talk. Those email exchanges were obtained and published by LitHub, which also published a statement we provided.

We began the evening on Wednesday by sharing with the audience of about 150 PEN America’s event code of conduct that welcomes respectful debate, critique, and disagreement but also is committed to ensuring our events are free of harassment and abuse, which can themselves shut down free expression. We noted that PEN America reserves the right to remove people from an event if their behavior is abusive or disruptive.

The six protesters who were inside the Los Angeles auditorium interrupted the event, first by playing loud audio recordings and then by shouting over our speakers. Initially, two protesters played audio recordings in the audience for some time, before being asked to stop by venue staff. A few people in the audience began to cry and others left the auditorium, clearly unsettled by the disruption. Consistent with our approach to public events, disruptions during a speech can be acceptable if the interruptions are momentary and the speaker is able to continue. 

After the conversation on the stage resumed, however, a second audio recording was played, and protesters began to yell at the speakers. Following our event protocols, PEN America’s Allison Lee reiterated our code of conduct, noting that free speech does not include the right to silence the speech of others, deny listeners an opportunity to hear, nor engage in abusive behavior.

The protesters escalated in volume and tone, shouting expletives at speakers and at PEN America staff by name. They were then asked to leave. All but one complied voluntarily.  The remaining protester was brought out of the room while she remained seated in her chair and continued to protest. While there was not a way to end the disruption without the protester leaving the room, the venue staff sought to be as respectful as possible and followed directions not to touch her physically nor hurt her in any way. The need to have a protester leave an event has arisen only rarely in our work, and is something that we avoid if at all possible.

After the protesters exited, the conversation about Subculture Vulture continued for about another hour, including robust and thoughtful dialogue with the audience. A number of audience members said that while they might share the political beliefs of the protesters, Kasher’s book had nothing to do with the conflict, and that no one has the right to shut down another person or conversation. 

Over the past several months, PEN America has hosted events bringing together writers with sharply divergent views and personal stakes in relation to the conflict, and defended writers and artists who have been challenged or canceled in other spaces for their expressions of solidarity with Palestinians. We will always continue to listen to the writers and readers in our community and respect their freedom to criticize our organizational positions. 

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.

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