As colleges and universities have confronted whether to let controversial figures on their campuses, the leader of a top free-speech group Tuesday argued that the speeches should be allowed even amid the threat of protests.
“Speech is still protected, even if it might elicit a violent reaction,” said Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of PEN America. “This is one of the things that’s come under debate because universities have to spend a lot of money at times to secure events by highly controversial speakers. Our view is, yeah, they need to spend the money.”
Colleges have faced difficult, high-profile choices on free-speech matters, particularly following the August mayhem at the University of Virginia, where white nationalist Richard Spencer rallied torch-bearing followers. The group’s march through the U-Va. campus was part of a weekend of violence in Charlottesville.
The conflict over free speech was also highlighted in October, when protesters at the University of Florida drowned out a speech by Spencer.
Nossel made her comments at a Washington Post Live event on free speech, where she sat on a panel with Susan N. Herman, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, and acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio.
“My view is clear,” Nossel said. “The potential for violence is not grounds for shutting down speech. There can become a threshold where an event cannot be secured, absolutely cannot be secured, with the most serious precautions possible. And that might be a different instance. But that’s very rare.”
Nossel said the best choice colleges can make is to allow controversial speakers to come to campus and to use the event as an opportunity to send a message. It can then be important for university leadership to speak out.
“It’s better to let them come, have their moment, let the protest proceed but without disrupting their speech, and then they don’t get the validation,” Nossel said. “They can’t sue. They don’t get to grandstand. And the moment passes. And I think that’s actually where we are now.”
Panuccio said peaceful protest of incendiary figures, which does not escalate to violence, is “valid exercise of speech.” But if a protest shuts down an event, he said, that could become problematic.
“There’s always a balance there,” he said. “But I think generally, the answer to speech you don’t like is more speech.”