Rider keynote event opens dialogue about free speech

By Tatyanna Carman and Gabrielle Waid

Project Director for Campus Free Speech at PEN America Jonathan Friedman spoke at Rider’s keynote event about free speech on Feb. 20 in the Mercer Room of Daly Dining Hall. 

PEN stands for poets, essayists and novelists. PEN America is a “100 year-old non-profit organization that is [committed] to essentially the intersection of literature, defending free speech, the power of words and human rights,” according to Friedman. 

Prior to being at PEN America, Friedman was an adjunct professor at New York University and Columbia University. He came to Rider in August 2019 to lead a professional development event, according to Vice President for Student Affairs Leanna Fenneberg. 

Fenneberg opened the event and introduced the speaker. Friedman started with a background on PEN America. 

“Two things that are central to the work are that we advocate for the unimpeded circulation of ideas and the arts across borders and we view free speech as a matter of broad civic concern,” said Fenneberg.

He said that many issues that are present today originated at least 100 years ago, if not more. He gave an example of the controversy surrounding film in the 1920s and compared it to controversies today surrounding social media. Friedman tied the importance of free speech to history. He then showed two definitions of free speech through two different historical documents: the Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  

“Free speech is not just something that American citizens have, it is actually a human right,” he explained. “This can be pretty surprising to a lot of people who today think of how free speech is being used as a kind of umbrella term to say hateful things or to push ideas in the public sphere that might undermine the idea of the university. But actually there is a long history of not just the United States, but countries around the world committing to the idea that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’” 

Friedman connected this to universities and said that students wrestling with ideas is fundamental. He also gave examples from PEN America of instances where violations of free speech have occurred. Some of those examples Friedman gave were of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Cameroon rapper Valsero, Ukranian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and Myanmar journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. 

“They are all stories of people being imprisoned or otherwise penalized for things that they said critical of their governments,” he said. “We often do not necessarily think of them when we think about free speech in the United States today. We often do not think about these international human rights issues, we’re often thinking about instead, ‘well what crosses the line?’” 

He showed a billboard in Times Square in New York City from last year that received a lot of attention displaying an athletic woman with tattoos, tying up President Donald Trump in red, white and blue rope with the burning White House behind them for an advertisement for athletic-wear. He said that some people viewed it as inciting violence. He then showed a billboard in North Carolina that was a mile away from a gun store that showed four elected congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and were called the four horsemen of the apocalypse. He said that some people viewed it as inciting violence as well.

“Of course, a lot of people on both sides of the political spectrum today think all the problems in the country have everything to do with that other side,” Friedman said “But a lot of the time they don’t recognize the ways in which we are now caught up in a kind of dynamic where one side does one side does one thing, one side does the other and there is this almost cultural war taking place, not only in the public sphere, on social media and what you can put on billboards, but what’s caught up right in the center are college campuses and you all know that.” 

Friedman then spoke on types of censorship such as threats, harassment, strict cultural norms and inequality of thought and how they manifest on campus. He also emphasized how social media and the internet can spread misinformation and spoke on hateful rhetoric. 

Friedman offered solutions to the issues and controversies surrounding free speech which, according to him, comes from harmonizing free speech and inclusion and through PEN’s three-pronged framework for balancing free speech and inclusion. Friedman also discussed the importance of students, faculty and administrators retaining their personal beliefs and values. His advice on retaining this crucial element can be explained in four steps that have been cultivated and created by PEN America.

“[First] articulating your core values… start off a semester putting information on your syllabus about what’s going to guide conversation in the class,” he said. “Second, it’s about education what you’re doing today, you’re educating yourselves.”

Friedman went on to discuss how to actively prepare to handle situations involving free speech and beliefs on campus, “Third, we can promote dialogue and listening so it’s not just about education and core values, it’s about making dialogue and listening across differences,” Friedman said, “Finally preparing for different scenarios… anticipating how you are going to promote free speech when its a difficult situation.” 

The event ended with a question and answer session that covered topics such as handling outside perceptions of a person’s beliefs, cancel culture, “mob think” and critical thinking on issues and ideas. 

Coordinator of Student Involvement Allison Koury, shared how she thought the event turned out. 

 “I think that it is really great. I’ve heard Jonathan speak the last time he was on campus and absolutely loved hearing him,” she said. “I think the message of PEN America is so urgent on college campuses today and in our world. As we know, free speech has come under threat over and over again. I think that it was an amazing turnout to see so many people from across the entire campus come together to be here to discuss free speech.” 

Junior musical theater and film major Kristen Wisneski said what she learned from the event. 

“I think one of the main things that I learned was how hate speech is not necessarily a definitive term in the dictionary and all forms of speech should be valued no matter what opinion is backing them up,” Wisneski said.  “We should all look towards including all communication principles and inclusive dialogues in our own communities and with people that we do not even necessarily know.” 

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