Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Is the solution to offensive speech more speech?

A woman sitting on a blue television set wearing a black top interviews a woman virtually who has red, curly hair and tortoise shell glasses.
Screen Capture
VPM News Focal Point
Suzanne Nossel, PEN America CEO and author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All discusses how to navigate free speech in a diverse society.

Some say the way to push back against offensive speech is by allowing even more speech. Suzanne Nossel, PEN America CEO and author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All explains why policing speech is a bad solution.


ANGIE MILES: We often support the right to free speech when we agree with the speaker, but what happens when we hear something we don't like? We're joined today by Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America. This is an organization that promotes free speech, and she's the author of the book, "Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All". Thank you for joining us, Ms. Nossel.

SUZANNE NOSSEL: Thanks for having me.

So you lead an organization called PEN. Can you tell us briefly more about your organization?

Sure, we have a mission to both celebrate and defend freedom of expression worldwide. So we celebrate the work of writers, we elevate people who are lesser, less heard in the literary community, working with incarcerated writers, with people from communities that are traditionally locked out of literary careers. We give out literary awards, hold a big festival, where we bring writers from around the world. And then we do free speech advocacy on a range of issues here in the United States. Educational censorship and book bans, press freedom, disinformation in the ways that that threatens free speech. And we work around the world, particularly on behalf of individual writers who are persecuted for the crime of expressing themselves. We try to get them out of prison, and safeguard them from torture and being targeted by hostile governments.

Clearly, you are passionate about the work and you've written this book, "Dare to Speak", it makes the argument that we need more emphasis on free and unrestrained speech. Can you give us a brief synopsis of your argument in the book?

Sure, in the book, I look at how to live together, how we can live together in our diverse, digitized, and divided society without curbing free speech. And I try to examine what it would take for us as a pluralistic society, where we have a lot of racial differences, we have socioeconomic differences, cultural differences, religious differences that can cause a lot of friction, that can lead us to bump up against one another, to offend one another, to hear something that's objectionable, and try to shut it down. You said in your introduction, we don't mind free speech when we agree. Well, what about when we disagree, and we are going to disagree living in such a diverse society. And so what I've set out in the book are 20 principles for how we can surmount that and how we can make free speech work for us in a society that is so heterogeneous. And it requires some obligations on our part as citizens, as speakers, as listeners, being tolerant of one another, respectful of one another, being conscientious with our language, taking into account, intent and context when we evaluate and react to speech. And so it's a set of precepts that in my view are kind of necessary to keep this core constitutional principle of free speech alive in the 21st century.

And that sets a high bar, high standard for all of us who participate. Hopefully, we can hold people to that. But in the spirit of sticks and stones can hurt, you know, that childhood saying we had, words can never hurt us, is that actually true? Is there speech that can actually be harmful to people, individuals, or groups?

There is, and I look in the book at examples of speech that can cause psychological, academic, and even physiological harm. There's documented evidence of that, but it's quite specific. It's really people who are subjected to slurs and denigrating speech throughout the course of their lives that can have a measurable demonstrable impact. But it's also true that the harms of speech can be exaggerated. They can be imagined, they can be projected where it's, you know, one person saying, "Oh, you've harmed other people," when they themselves weren't harmed, and they don't have evidence that anybody actually was. And so I think we have come to throw around the concept of harm much too loosely when it comes to speech, but it's also true that speech can have harm. And it's better in my view as a free speech defender to kind of own up to that, and to admit that that school yard adage that you just cited sticks and stones may break my bones, words can never hurt me, you know, that's not quite true. Words can, they certainly can hurt, and they can harm, but we shouldn't assume that they harm or exaggerate those harms, because in so doing, we chill and we shut down speech.

I think that there is room to admit that some speech is considered hateful by most reasonable people. Is your sentiment that yes, hateful speech is a real problem, but maybe the remedy for hateful speech is actually more free speech? And if that is the case, can you give me an example of a time when you think that has been true?

Yeah, look, hateful speech is upsetting. It can be undermining of our sense of security and identity. You know, it can create a fractious hostile environment. And so I think it has to be taken seriously. Under the First Amendment, most of what we call hateful speech is protected legally. Our government is not empowered to ban it or to shut it down. So if you say even an offensive slur, like the N word in a public university, you can't be punished for that unless it rises to perhaps the level of harassment, if you're using it pervasively, talking to an individual person. But by and large, even hateful speech is protected. And counter speech, what you just mentioned. So that this age old notion that goes back to a decision by Justice Brandeis, that the answer to noxious or harmful speech is more speech. I do think it's the best answer we have. It's not a perfect answer. You know, we see online someone says something offensive, and there can be just a torrent of vitriol that targets them. And it could be on a really contentious issue. Let's take, you know, the Israel-Gaza War. People have a lot of strong feelings. Someone says something that someone else objects to, and, you know, then that person is trolled. They may be subjected to death threats, and people are watching, and they think to themselves, "Gosh, I'm not going to talk about this controversial topic, because look what could happen." And that has what we call a chilling effect on speech writ large. And online, it's easy for that to happen, because speech is empowered and amplified algorithmically. So it's not just one person responding and saying, "You've got this wrong." It can be an entire chorus of, sometimes, thousands or hundreds of thousands who chime in. And so, particularly in the digital era, I think we have to own up that more speech is not always an easier or perfect answer.

You've mentioned-

It's just the best answer we have.

Okay, and you've mentioned digitized and divided several times. I think we can all pretty much agree that we have what may be an unprecedented amount of divisiveness in a digital age. Now, you mentioned the chilling effect, but what about the other side of that? What about the permission effect? The hearing someone utter things that may be hateful might spark someone who feels a similar way to feel entitled, or permitted to speak more about that, or to act on it in a negative way, any thoughts on that?

Yeah, I think that does happen. I think we saw that during the first Trump administration when he, for example, used denigrated language on the basis of race or talked about Muslim Americans in derisive terms, that it felt as if hateful speech was kind of being set loose through society. It was being legitimized from the bully pulpit of the White House. And, you know, what we saw, one of the things we saw in response to that, interestingly, there were mobilizations against hatred. You know, after Charlottesville when he sort of excused what was done, and said they were fine people on both sides. You know, people took umbrage, and there was a kind of impulse to stand with those who felt victimized and to be in solidarity with people on the receiving end of Trump's targeting and menacing language. And so that was a positive. At the same time, we also saw that with hateful speech seeming to run freely through society at large, there was an impulse to police speech more forcefully in smaller spaces, be that a college campus, or the pages of a magazine, or a newspaper. And we saw some quite restrictive impulses targeting speech kind of coming to the foreground by leaders who I think felt like they had to protect their constituencies from hateful speech, but sometimes, in my view, went too far.

Hmm, and so the policing, you say no to that, do you have any recommendations specifically for how we can maybe avoid some of the tiptoeing around free conversation and debate that we seem to see more of today?

Yeah, look, I think that's really important. We need to be teaching and learning the skills for dialogue across difference. How to disagree with someone without denigrating them. How to apologize if you've said something that's inadvertently offensive. When to forgive someone else who may have used the wrong word or a phrase that bothered you. And how to kind of navigate these tough conversations in a civilized way, so that there's a real kind of give and take, because ultimately, free speech, it's not just about shouting into the void. It is about a give and take persuasion. Being able to surface the best ideas in conversation with others. And it turns out, that is a skill. It's not something we can assume that people have when they arrive on the college campus. Most of them have grown up in quite segregated communities and schools. They may be encountering people with vastly different viewpoints for the first time. And it's a learned skill. And so we're now working with a lot of universities across the country in how they can get more intentional and deliberate in ensuring that those skills are taught, that they're practiced, not just by students, but by everybody on campus.

Okay, and, of course, we hope that well-intentioned people will be willing to learn and rise to the standard. It sounds like you're hopeful, like you believe, the long arc of the free speech universe bends towards correctness, so thank you for your sharing your ideas, and we appreciate your time. That's Suzanne Nossel, who is author and CEO of PEN America. We appreciate you.

Thank you so much.

Yes, that's it. I think that you've talked about these things a time or two before, so thank you, Suzanne.



Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
Related Articles
  1. Free speech on campus
  2. Virginia school divisions navigate complexity of Confederate flag displays
  3. Hanover County students fight the book ban
Related Stories