Suzanne Nossel headshot

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” This week, we discuss the global implications of the Chinese government’s regime of censorship, ongoing disputes around the Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure decision at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), and the links between hate speech and hate crimes. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne begins at the 10:42 mark).

On the Global Implications of the Chinese Government’s Censorship

“This is something that we have been focused on as an organization for some time. It was interesting to put together this testimony and realize just how many studies we have done on various aspects of this, including the implications of Chinese censorship for U.S. authors when their works aren’t translated into Mandarin for publication on the mainland. We’ve looked at constraints on foreign journalists covering China from inside the mainland—that’s a problem that’s gotten far worse since we wrote about it—we just released our report on digital sovereignty, which is a major aspect of this, we have our report on Hollywood (Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing), and a report on Chinese censorship of social media. We have looked at many different angles of this problem over many years, and this is the first time that a U.S. government entity has really reached out to us to probe into this issue.

“I think it does reflect a kind of awakening to the implications of Chinese censorship not just inside the mainland, not just even in Hong Kong, where obviously we’ve talked a lot about how things are becoming far worse. We saw not just the shutdown of Apple Daily, but the arrests of two of its writers, just over the last week. This problem and its reverberations are global.”

On Academic Freedom and the Tenure Case of Nikole Hannah-Jones

In this case, it was pretty clear that those most closely involved with what Hannah-Jones is going to be doing at UNC were firmly in favor of her receiving an appointment with tenure. Her predecessors in this Knight Chair at the university had been granted tenure even though they, like her, were working journalists, not Ph.D. holders, and what came into it was some of the debate over The 1619 Project. I think that’s a valid debate, and there are serious historians who have offered contrary perspectives, who called into question some of what she and the project have put forward, some of its analysis. And I think that’s an absolutely legitimate topic for debate, but the fact that it’s controversial or there are alternative perspectives out there, or even that some people may think it’s flat-out wrong cannot be grounds for denying tenure, when the rest of the record would support it. That, to me, veers into the territory of ideological discrimination, where someone is being denied the opportunity for a certain stature of ideological grounds—and that’s something we reject, whether the ideology in question is progressive or liberal or conservative.

“I think what was also striking in this case was the extent of the outcry among scholars, including some scholars who really disagree with Hannah-Jones substantively, who nonetheless felt for this kind of position—with the precedent as it was—for it to be tenured, that the denial came off as politically motivated, as an effort perhaps to appease a donor, and a step contrary to the precepts of academic freedom.”

On the Links Between Physical Violence and Hate Speech

“One of the things I argue in Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All is that free speech defenders need to fight against hate crimes. And why is that? Even if you didn’t believe that fighting against hate crimes is just the right thing to do, as a moral matter, I think it’s also instrumental for the protection of free speech. If people believe that hate crimes are running amok and escalating and worsening, there is an impulse to crack down on speech. That, to me, is not the right solution, though there is a relationship between hate speech and hate crimes.

“There is evidence that I talk about in the book of correlations between spikes in hate speech and spikes in hate crimes, and yet what there’s no evidence of is the idea that by curbing or curtailing hate speech by punishing or banning it, you’ve lessened the propensity toward hate crimes. I don’t think that hate speech is a cause of hate crimes; I think both hate speech and hate crimes reflect prevailing attitudes and biases and biogted impulses. They may surge in tandem and correlate, but that doesn’t imply that allowing hate speech fosters hate crimes, or even more so, that cubing hate speech legally is a remedy for an escalation in hate crimes.”