The PEN Pod: Tough Questions with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression as they pertain to the ongoing pandemic with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of the forthcoming Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, we discuss the importance of protecting free speech, from the Portland protests to President Trump’s Michael Cohen gag order. Plus, we hear from Suzanne about her book Dare to Speak, which goes on sale next Tuesday, July 28.
The reporting in Portland has been pretty disturbing. We’ve seen video footage of unmarked vehicles and federal law enforcement snatching folks from the street. As we’re recording this, there are now threats to expand that dragnet to other American cities. At the same time, we’re seeing demonstrators take to the streets against this incursion, including a “Wall of Moms.” How worried should we be about all of this, and what implications does this have for our First Amendment rights?
I think we should be very worried. I find it profoundly alarming. As someone who has worked on issues of free speech and authoritarianism around the world, I can think only of Eurasia, China, Hong Kong, the book sellers who were kidnapped extraterritorially in Thailand—these are the tactics of a strongarm regime, honestly. It’s really frightening to hear about this happening on the streets of American cities.
I think the level of alarm is far more muted than it should be. Obviously, part of that is the pandemic and all the other things that Americans have on their minds, but I think it falls to the Republicans in Congress. There are people who have fought against authoritarian overreach around the world—how do they feel about it now that it’s happening in American cities? The likes of Marco Rubio or Chris Smith, who style themselves champions of human rights, and yet we don’t see them speaking out. I think that the president seems to feel somewhat backed into a corner and is lashing out and trying to portray our cities as crumbling and in disarray, which is simply not true.
“I think the level of alarm [over what’s happening in Portland] is far more muted than it should be. Obviously, part of that is the pandemic and all the other things that Americans have on their minds, but I think it falls to the Republicans in Congress. There are people who have fought against authoritarian overreach around the world—how do they feel about it now that it’s happening in American cities?”
It’s a moment of reckoning and transformation, but the leadership of our cities, for the most part, have good control on it and are really engaging with citizens and communities to try to police more effectively. This undercuts that fundamentally. I think our military leadership ought to be speaking out, even though these officers come from the Departments of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection. They’re wearing fatigues, they’re carrying guns. It looks like and feels like the military is taking to American cities, and that’s just not something that we have in this country, except under very limited and extreme circumstances. And it’s certainly not warranted in this case. So, I’m very alarmed about it. We’re joining together with other organizations to protest, and we need to watch carefully.
There has been a backlash. There have been people who’ve spoken out. We’ll see if the president makes good on his threats to move forward with this strategy. My hope is that the reaction is sufficient so that he won’t, but we need to watch this very closely. We have an election coming up that will, in so many ways, determine the future direction of our country. Protecting our democratic process at this point is essential.
Speaking of Trump, his former attorney Michael Cohen was recently returned to prison because he refused not to write a book about Trump. [Note: After this conversation was recorded, a judge ordered Cohen’s release on July 23, ruling that the book publication ban was retaliation.] How abnormal is it for the government to issue this kind of gag order? What does it tell you about the Trump administration’s approach to those who want to write about him and criticize him?
It’s interesting because there are precedents for prohibitions on criminals, speaking out with the media, and writing about their crimes in ways that glorify them. There has been a notion that that’s appropriate—that you shouldn’t be able to accrue the proceeds of a book that comes off the back of victims of your crime. But this comes on the heels of the White House’s fights in court to first ban John Bolton’s book, and then Mary Trump’s book—we were involved in both of those legal challenges, pushing back against the White House, and were vindicated; both times those books have been published. This seems to be part of that pattern, where the reports are that Cohen has some damning things to say about the president and he intends to publish a book, and seemingly through federal criminal authorities and prison authorities, he’s being sent back to jail because he won’t agree to desist.
“I really believe those principles [in Dare to Speak] are fundamental to both American democracy and society and the things that we treasure about them. They can and must fit together. Both sides are really stronger for the other—I think the defense of free speech is strengthened, if it encompasses a commitment to driving forward equality. I think the movement to eradicate racism and enshrine equality is strengthened by recognizing the need for robust protections for free speech.”
To me, that raises a fundamentally different set of issues than any normal restrictions on the perpetrator of a crime being deprived of the opportunity to gain notoriety and fame off the back of it. I think this is something very different, that seems clearly motivated by the president’s determination to protect his reputation at the expense of the First Amendment. So I am glad this has been challenged in court. I’m glad the ACLU is on top of that, as we have an individual who is being incarcerated and deprived of their liberty because of their intention to write a book. One sort of strange aspect of this for PEN America is that I don’t know that we ever saw ourselves rising to the defense of John Bolton or Michael Cohen, but here we are, and there are vital free expression issues at stake.
Finally, I want to talk about your book, Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech For All, which goes on sale this Tuesday. Can you tell us about the book and how you think it might resonate for people right now?
It’s a book that I wrote over the last year, really growing out of so much of our work at PEN America on these very fractious, divisive battles over free speech. It’s my notion of how we need to reconcile the principles of commitment to inclusivity, equality, and justice with robust, uncompromising protections for free speech. I really believe those principles are fundamental to both American democracy and society and the things that we treasure about them. They can and must fit together. Both sides are really stronger for the other—I think the defense of free speech is strengthened, if it encompasses a commitment to driving forward equality. I think the movement to eradicate racism and enshrine equality is strengthened by recognizing the need for robust protections for free speech.
Honestly, the dustups over these issues are constant—whether it’s Tammy Duckworth and Tucker Carlson, over his noxious comments about her; what we just talked about in the streets of Portland and the government’s overreach—some people want more extensive government regulation of hateful speech and other kinds of speech that they think are dangerous. But look, what happens when you give the government that authority is they will misuse it. We know that from American history, we know that from what we see around the world, and we have vivid reminders of that right now, today in July 2020, with the whole controversy over cancel culture and the Harper’s letter and the resignation of Bari Weiss from The New York Times.
“We can bring about a reasoned, robust kind of free-flowing discourse that will allow us to talk about all kinds of tough topics to butt up against one another, to express our opinions, to have a give-and-take that really helps all of us to see things from different perspectives, but without the hostility, vitriol, and censoriousness that can erupt in our digital age when we engage on these issues. My hope is that the book helps keep speech flowing freely.”
What I try to suggest is that, while these tensions are inevitable, there are practical, concrete ways that each of us can play a role in helping to bring about a more inclusive and equal society, but also defending free speech protections. I really try to spell out how you can do that in your daily life, whether it’s in the classroom, around the boardroom table, on Zoom, or at the dinner table with your family—ways to use language conscientiously; how to think about the duty of care that you have in a given situation, depending on what your position is, what your platform is; what you need to know about your audience ahead of time before you speak out; what due diligence you ought to do and how to do it; to make sure that you don’t accidentally blunder into saying something you’re going to be called out for and regret. I talk about callouts, and I believe sometimes they’re appropriate and warranted, and sometimes they’re not. I explain why and what the alternatives may be in some situations to avoid escalating a conflict over speech.
My feeling is that, with some fairly basic adaptations to how we engage with one another, we can bring about a reasoned, robust kind of free-flowing discourse that will allow us to talk about all kinds of tough topics to butt up against one another, to express our opinions, to have a give-and-take that really helps all of us to see things from different perspectives, but without the hostility, vitriol, and censoriousness that can erupt in our digital age when we engage on these issues. My hope is that the book helps keep speech flowing freely. It’s called Dare to Speak, and I think about that a lot, because at a moment like this, you do feel that it’s a bit daring at times to speak out on certain topics because the blowback can be fierce. But, I also think it’s extremely important that we do continue to voice even contestable opinions. I try to provide a roadmap for how to do that.
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