(NEW YORK)— In response to a decision by Whitworth University students in Spokane, WA that blocked a speaker from an on-campus discussion, PEN America said today that fear that a talk will offend some listeners cannot “be the bar by which invitations are denied on campuses.” The free expression group noted historic levels of education censorship and urged students to “resist the urge to do the same.”

Last Thursday, Xi Van Fleet, who describes herself as a “survivor of Mao’s Cultural Revolution,” spoke to Whitworth University students but at an off campus location. The student government voted against allowing her to speak on campus at the invitation of the university’s Turning Point USA chapter.

Minutes from the student government meeting earlier last month reveal that students discussed the content of Van Fleet’s social media feeds and debated if her speech would cause harm to students. At times, they suggested that Turning Point USA students should only invite speakers that will discuss economic issues, and said: “We need to vote based on safety and comfortability.”

In response, Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, released the following statement:

“It is disappointing to see a student group fearful of inviting a speaker based on that person’s viewpoint. A fear that the speech will offend some listeners cannot be the bar by which invitations to speakers are denied on campuses.The minutes from the student government meeting reveal some discussion of the importance of civil discourse, and we wish that those arguments had been more convincing to the nine representatives who voted against Van Fleet’s campus appearance.  This decision deprived Van Fleet the opportunity to speak on campus, but also deprived all students of an opportunity to listen and discuss her ideas in an open forum. Safety and comfort are never excuses to censor; at a time when higher education faces historic levels of legislative censorship, students must resist the urge to do the same.”

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