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 Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, we discuss ways to combat disinformation as we approach the election, the criminal inquiry into John Bolton’s book, and the current issues with free speech and virtual classrooms in colleges. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne begins at the 10:30 mark).
I know there are so many things to worry about when it comes to voting—who to trust, when you get your ballot, whether it’s safe to go to your polling place. How do we warn voters against disinformation that’s floating around out there without discouraging voters from actually voting?
Look: There is an epic flow of disinformation. We’re seeing stories by the day of distortions when it comes to mail-in ballots, voter fraud, doctored videos of candidates. We at PEN America are firing on all pistons, doing public education webinars to alert people about the dangers of disinformation and how they can avoid becoming a vector. We’ll be releasing some fantastic videos to spread the word. We released a tip sheet just last week that goes through how to engage family members or neighbors on issues of disinformation—it can be a tough conversation, people can get defensive. Sometimes, they’re locked into their own alternative reality where they’re talking to people on social media about conspiracy theories, and they don’t even engage with mainstream journalism that might point out the facts of the falsehoods. We’re in a dangerous moment; I think there is no single solution to this. It’s up to all of us to have the tough conversations with people we know who are veering toward the fringes, and try to reel them back in through appeals to reason.
“Sometimes, [people are] locked into their own alternative reality where they’re talking to people on social media about conspiracy theories, and they don’t even engage with mainstream journalism that might point out the facts of the falsehoods. We’re in a dangerous moment; I think there is no single solution to this. It’s up to all of us to have the tough conversations with people we know who are veering toward the fringes, and try to reel them back in through appeals to reason.”
There’s also obviously a crucial piece that social media companies bear responsibility for, which is how this information is spreading, who sees it, whether it’s optimized within algorithms, where they draw the line in terms of what to take down. They’re making more decisions at a faster pace now, they’re becoming somewhat more aggressive. There are also different line-drawing calls that are being made by particular platforms. They don’t always agree on whether a doctored video crosses the line or ought to be considered within bounds as a form of satire. But, I think we are absolutely reliant on them, and I’m glad to see steps like what Facebook has done in terms of at least elevating credible election-related information at the top of every feed. So now, if you log into Facebook, you’ll see information on where to vote, how to vote in an election center that is at the top of every feed. I think it’s extremely important to put people on alert. Our campaign is called “What To Expect When You’re Electing 2020” because we think the more educated people are about the ways in which this election will be like none other, the less vulnerable they will be to disinformation and conspiracy theories. But it’s a pretty edgy situation with real risks to our democracy.
I think anyone who tells you they know exactly what to expect is probably not telling you the truth. I think it’s right that we sort of have to weigh through a lot of it. I want to switch over to a Justice Department piece of news this week. Officials there said they would open a criminal inquiry into John Bolton’s tell-all book, particularly over allegations that Bolton disclosed allegedly classified information. We filed a friend of the court brief in this case, when it went to court. Where do you come down on all of this?
It’s interesting because when the trial judge, Royce Lamberth, in the district court in Washington was asked to rule on the request for an injunction that would have stopped the Bolton book from hitting stores over the summer, he concluded that the case for an injunction was unfounded, essentially because the book was already out there. It had found its way into a lot of people’s hands, it was out of the warehouses, and he concluded that it was impossible to put the genie back in the bottle at that point.
“There may have been officials who really were doing their job in the ordinary course and without subject to political pressure. But this White House has so clouded over its engagement with its critics that it’s very hard not to look at virtually everything they do as an example of retaliation—reprisals against those expressing themselves in ways that the president disapproves of, or those who are casting him in a negative light.”
But what he did not find was that Bolton was in the clear insofar as respecting the strictures, as far as national security, and the book had been submitted to a clearance process. Bolton had been going back and forth with a particular official who was assigned to review his manuscript. He says that process reached what that official indicated was its conclusion, and that she had no further edits or changes to request, but the process was never formally concluded. Another level of reviewer said, “Look, this is still ongoing, and we haven’t given you the clearance.” Bolton decided to go ahead anyway. The trial judge had concerns about that decision on his part to violate the process and not wait for formal clearance, and also about the substance of the book.
I think there are valid reasons to have the national security review to ensure that former officials don’t make disclosures that could harm American security. The issue in this case is that the White House has taken such a politicized approach to those clearances—prolonging them, seeming to deny them without basis—and in this case, I think sort of ending its engagement with Bolton. So, it’s very hard to judge. There may have been officials who really were doing their job in the ordinary course and without subject to political pressure. But this White House has so clouded over its engagement with its critics that it’s very hard not to look at virtually everything they do as an example of retaliation—reprisals against those expressing themselves in ways that the president disapproves of, or those who are casting him in a negative light.
I think what’s particularly alarming about this criminal investigation that the DOJ has launched is that their subpoena is not in just Bolton himself, but also the publishing house, Simon & Schuster, and Bolton’s agent. That clearly seems designed to cast a chill and intimidate anybody who might consider publishing a book critical of the Trump administration, because who knows, you might find yourself embroiled in a criminal investigation.
“A lot of the verbal and visual cues that you normally have—knowing that you have some support in the room and feeling affirmed in speaking out on a topic—are just not there on Zoom. . . That poses a potential risk for free expression as people sit back, and the conversation perhaps is dominated by those who have greater confidence, comfort level, and are in a setting where they recognize the professor and the classmates as people that are very similar to those they grew up with.”
The chilling effect is pretty severe. Finally, I know obviously campuses—especially college campuses—aren’t quite reopening. Yet, we’re still seeing a trend that I know you have been following very closely—of professors and other educators really being punished for speaking out, or for colleges and universities not taking a firm enough stance for the civil liberties of its faculty. We saw this play out at Skidmore College just in recent weeks. How is this debate playing out more broadly, especially as we’re in this kind of weird period when some campuses are open and some aren’t, and a lot of this is taking place in the virtual realm?
We have seen over the last few weeks a market escalation in the number of incidents of free speech flare-ups on college campuses: people being called out for things they’ve said, demands for discipline, to be exact. The case at Skidmore involved a professor who attended or was standing at the margins of a protest in town in support of the police, and students then called for a boycott of his classes and demanded that the administration discipline him. The leadership of the college issued a pretty tepid response, affirming his free speech rights, but not in a forceful way. That’s really chilling. People have the right to attend protests in off-hours. He was going as a private citizen, and it’s nothing that he personally said, he didn’t demean or denigrate anyone, or harass anyone. So the idea that simply attending a march or a gathering or an assembly could be grounds for such repercussions is pretty chilling and alarming.
We see other instances of people who, for example, got involved in a two-day strike for social justice last week. Some of the professors who took part in that are now being attacked for violating work rules. It’s just a very fraught, fractious moment. I think it goes back to all the advice that we have amassed over the years as PEN America, the course of our work on Campus Free Speech, our first report And Campus for All. The follow-up that we did just last year details how universities can respond to these censorious calls, and how to adjudicate the issues in ways that are protective of legitimate concerns, particularly when it comes to students from historically marginalized groups who are especially impacted by hateful speech and other expression that can make them feel less included and less comfortable on campus. And all the while we are protecting robust safeguards for free speech and academic freedom. I think, in the virtual world, it’s really essential that campuses concentrate on that.
There are all sorts of issues that arise in the Zoom classroom in terms of who feels empowered to take the floor. A lot of the verbal and visual cues that you normally have—knowing that you have some support in the room and feeling affirmed in speaking out on a topic—are just not there on Zoom. I think it takes a lot more to jump into the conversation. That poses a potential risk for free expression as people sit back, and the conversation perhaps is dominated by those who have greater confidence, comfort level, and are in a setting where they recognize the professor and the classmates as people that are very similar to those they grew up with. I think we really have to bend over backwards to ensure that the shift to a virtual campus doesn’t impair free speech.