(NEW YORK) – PEN America warned today that New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s letter to public university leaders – instructing them that “calling for genocide” is against their codes of conduct and will lead to “swift disciplinary action” – could result in “unintended consequences” for campus free expression and free speech including chilling class lessons and discussion.

Jeremy C. Young, Freedom to Learn program director at PEN America, said in response to Hochul’s letter: “Regulating speech in a democracy should never be done lightly. As odious as an explicit and direct call for genocide is, it is likely to be protected by the First Amendment. “In some cases, the speech in question is not an explicit call for annihilation of a group but rather coded, more ambiguous, or contested language. Antisemitism and hate are serious problems on campus that demand attention and concerted action. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening here.”

“This political directive to discipline people for broad and vaguely defined categories of speech will put pressure on university leaders to censor or punish faculty and students, and may have unintended consequences for a range of expression on campus,” Young said. “Could reading and discussing a “call for genocide” in Mein Kampf in a World War II history class run afoul of this directive? Or a student quoting and analyzing it in a research paper? What about mounting an art exhibit about genocidal warfare? The Governor’s letter doesn’t say, but the uncertainties illustrate why political officials should not be in the habit of telling universities how to regulate speech on campus to begin with. We hope Governor Hochul will reconsider and offer clearer guidance for institutions on these matters, directives that uphold both the First Amendment and Title VI.”

The governor’s letter followed a highly publicized Congressional hearing on antisemitism on college campuses, where Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY-21) asked the presidents of MIT, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania whether calls for genocide against Jews would constitute harassment or bullying under their student codes of conduct. The exchange went viral, as the three presidents were criticized for offering short, legalistic responses, and saying that such a hypothetical scenario would depend on the context.

The spread of hatred can impair open discourse and poison a healthy learning environment.  Amid an increasingly menacing climate, PEN America believes campus leaders have an obligation to be responsive to threats, intimidation, and students’ encounters with overt discrimination, and to ensure that they address students’ concerns through approaches that adhere to laws and campus policies protecting academic freedom and free speech. Such an approach should include robust dialogue, education, and firm denunciations of antisemitism and Islamophobia.  

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