PEN America has issued the following statement today from CEO Suzanne Nossel in response to two separate cases of offensive remarks that made headlines and caused an outcry; one involving Georgetown Law Professor Ilya Shapiro and the other, television host Whoopi Goldberg. Nossel is the author of the 2020 book, Dare to Speak, Defending Free Speech For All.

 “Although the nature, context, and content of their statements are very different, the suspension and investigation into the conduct of Georgetown law professor Ilya Shapiro and the two-week suspension of The View host Whoopi Goldberg raise some similar issues about the appropriate institutional response to incidents of offensive and degrading speech.  In Shapiro’s case, the comments in question were manifestly sexist and racist, denigrating Black women candidates for the Supreme Court as inherently inferior.  His apology was perfunctory. Goldberg’s comments evinced a profound ignorance about history and anti-Semitism that is unacceptable for someone who holds an influential public podium.  That said, after initially doubling down on her ill-informed remarks, in her apology she showed contrition and a willingness to learn.  That openness should be embraced.  Open discourse must include room for even egregious misstatements, apologies, and forgiveness.

Both cases implicate a series of principles that PEN America has elaborated as essential to the defense of open discourse, including the importance of conscientiousness with language, the special duties of care that attend powerful platforms, the harms that demeaning speech can cause, the importance of considering the context and intent of speech,  the circumstances under which an apology for errant speech should be accepted, and the special obligations of a university to defend free speech. 

Both Georgetown and ABC’s decisions to interrupt their relationships with Shapiro and Goldberg respectively send a powerful message that offensive speech will not be tolerated within these institutions.  But it is important that if they are prompted solely by offensive speech rather than biased conduct, that these hiatuses not be a form of punishment, lest they add to the existing sense of chill in our public discourse regarding sensitive topics. 

The drive to appease upset stakeholders must not override an institution’s commitments to free speech; that imperative is particularly powerful in the case of Georgetown, a university that has dedicated itself to upholding academic freedom.  Ultimately, if these institutions conclude that the speakers’ comments are not reflective of discriminatory animus or behavior that affects their work, it is important that they be allowed to resume their responsibilities and put these incidents in the past.”  

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, Communications and Media Consultant, STrimel@PEN.org