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.” In this week’s episode, we spoke with Suzanne about Facebook’s shutdown of two accounts belonging to academic researchers who were studying political ads and misinformation on the network, an alarming new law in Long Island, NY that would allow police officers to sue protesters, and the question of athletes protesting at the Olympics. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne begins at the 8:47 mark).

On Facebook’s Shutting Down of Research into the Platform

“I think if Facebook wants to proceed as it has and avoid heavy-handed regulatory intervention that may compromise aspects of its business, this is absolutely the wrong approach. They don’t necessarily need to welcome this research, but they ought to view it as a necessary thing to accept, in the context of the very powerful role that they play—that they’re going to come under scrutiny, that people are going to look at them, they’re not going to be able to control all of that, and that facts are going to emerge that are sometimes uncomfortable, and they can contest that if they think the researchers have gotten it wrong. But to shut down accounts, to send cease and desist letters, is, I think, extremely heavy-handed, and really plays into the worst perceptions and fears that we have about a company like Facebook that is holding dominion over such an important part of our political life.”

On Legislation that Would Allow Police to Sue Protesters

“I think this is a product of this very pitched debate over the role of police in protests, and the heavy-handed tactics that we saw last summer in policing of the Black Lives Matter protests across the country. We documented many arrests and some assaults of journalists and protesters—overly aggressive policing tactics that impinged upon free expression rights. In the wake of that, we’ve seen and done a report on these state-level laws aiming to curtail protest rights in a whole variety of different ways by enhancing penalties, by limiting where and when you can protest, by creating strict parameters for how you can protest, whether you’re allowed to be on a public lawn or on a road.

“This is another extreme manifestation of that effort to reshape the balance between protesters and authorities. There’s no evidence in Nassau County, where this took place, that there have even been rowdy or out-of-control protests. So the idea that this new cause of action for harassment or injury by police officers making individuals liable for up to $50,000 in civil fines really seems like an unnecessary overreach and encroachment upon free expression rights. You have to think twice about going to a protest if you know that a police officer may be able to sue you in the wake of that if they don’t like how you behave. I think this law probably stretches the bounds of constitutionality and will be challenged.”

On Athlete Protests at the Olympics

“On the one hand, as a defender of free speech, I believe those protections shouldn’t stop at the locker room door, and that athletes should be entitled to voice their opinions and be heard. We have this very dramatic case of a Belarusian athlete who had criticized her coaches, and they essentially tried to kidnap her and spirit her back to Belarus, and she seems to be seeking out asylum in Tokyo, and I think that’s a great example of how unfettered government leeway to police and punish speech can run amok, in the context of an Olympic event.

“On the other hand, I will say I think there’s something powerful in the concept of the Olympics being above politics, and to be able to watch these events—where we have Chinese, Russian, American, Israeli, and Arab, Hong Kong teams participating in these Games—is a sort of hopeful demonstration of how humanity can at times transcend some of our most intractable conflicts. I think that is kind of the Olympic spirit. There’s something very useful about it, and if that became really polluted by politics, you could see how it could be destroyed.”