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 the news of PEN Belarus’s forced closure on the very same day that the country marked the anniversary of its fraudulent election, the impact of book bans on the ability of students to learn, and what digital platforms can do to stop or mitigate the effects of COVID vaccine-related misinformation. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne begins at the 17:52 mark).

On the Dissolution of PEN Belarus

“It’s profoundly disturbing. Look, we’re seeing authoritarianism widening its reach worldwide, and our sister organizations in places like Myanmar, Hong Kong, Afghanistan coming under tremendous pressure. The situation in Belarus is somewhat unique for us, in that PEN Belarus has been so specifically targeted and actually shut down. It speaks to the influence of writers of principle, the [PEN Belarus] president Svetlana Alexievich and her global profile, that this literary organization is construed as so threatening that they initiated a court case and demanded its eradication. . . . What is inspiring and heartening for all of us is to see the iron will of the writers and participants in PEN Belarus. While the Belarusian government may be declaring this organization extinct, the reality is far different.”

On the Impact of Book Bans

“Book bans are such an old-school method of repression of freedom of expression. I remember when I first came to PEN and learned that the organization was doing work on book bans, it seemed anachronistic to me. . . . What I learned is that book bans are alive and well, and that they move with the culture. They tend to crop up as a battleground in connection with culture wars. So when there are debates over how to grapple with racial equality, with LGBTQ+ identities, with gender differences—those battles play out in the realm of children’s literature.

“There’s this very deep-seated notion that children need to be protected and shielded from ideas that may be challenging, that may not comport with their parents’ value system, that may be upsetting or confusing. Our philosophy at PEN is that that’s the exact wrong approach—that children need to be exposed to a wide range of ideas, that children’s literature is a very useful and appropriate vehicle for allowing kids to come to grips with issues of difference, with controversial questions that they may grapple with later in life. . . . The notion of book bans to expunge these ideas and portrayals and identities from the classroom is disturbing. It’s of a piece with this rising trend of people being willing to throw principle to the wind, abandon all fealty to free expression and the First Amendment, in the name of pushing back against what they see as change that’s happening too fast, or lifestyles that they don’t want to endorse. We see that in the movement in state houses to ban critical race theory, and another version of that in this set of bans in this battle in Leander, TX.”

On Stemming Misinformation About COVID Vaccines

“It’s a complicated problem. It’s multi-faceted. We have, unfortunately, prominent governors and state legislators who have bought hook, line, and sinker, into misinformation about the vaccine or these vaccine-questioning postures that are lending to tremendous surges in the spread of COVID in certain parts of this country.”

“Facebook and other social media platforms have an important role to play. One of the complex issues is that while most of them, including Facebook, have banned directly harmful mis- and disinformation (so for example, a statement that children can’t get COVID, or that masks don’t work, or that the vaccine is ineffective—that counts as disinformation and breaches the rules on a platform like Facebook), but something that’s broader or more ambiguous (for example, questioning the efficacy of vaccines) is considered part of legitimate debate. It’s a difficult line to draw.

“For example, right now we have a debate about boosters. Some people say boosters are necessary, others would argue that they aren’t. At what point does it become disinformation? In the absence of definitive studies on a lot of this stuff, that is a difficult line to draw. I think the most important thing for Facebook is to make sure that they really are proactively policing the categories of content that are demonstrably falsifiable. . . . They should be offering far greater transparency to researchers who want to track the impact of this misinformation, track how people actually act on this misinformation, what do they do next when they come across a piece of mis- or disinformation. The work that they’ve done in promoting the vaccine has shown some degree of efficacy. But are there ways that that could be stepped up dramatically? What kind of investment would that take? So I hope that’s taken seriously.”