Free Speech in American History, Culture, and Society
Americans have declared free speech, as enshrined in the First Amendment, to be a national ideal since the nation’s founding. Yet, in recent years, what constitutes free speech and how it should be protected has become a political battleground. Competing definitions of free speech have led to controversies over hate speech, disinformation, “cancel culture,” academic freedom, protest and civil disobedience, and the role of a free press. These controversies have even led some Americans to question the viability of free speech as a unifying value in 21st-century America or to dismiss it as a smoke screen for hatred or a weapon of the powerful.
In response, PEN America and the American Historical Association have developed Flashpoints: Free Speech in American History, Culture, and Society. This project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), is a robust nationwide public humanities program centered on the history of free speech in our democracy. Our goal is to widen recognition of the evolution of the First Amendment in ensuring free speech protections for all Americans and the essential role those protections play in a democratic society.
PEN America formed on April 19, 1922, in New York City. The intent, in the wake of World War I, was to foster international literary fellowship among writers that would transcend national and ethnic divides. PEN America’s mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.
Flashpoints is timed to mark PEN America’s 100th anniversary in 2022 and the lead-up to the US semiquincentennial. The series will take a retrospective look at the unique role of free speech in America’s past and present. As part of the NEH’s A More Perfect Union initiative, Flashpoints will interrogate the place of free speech in American history and contemporary issues by hosting public events and developing resources and guides for educators and the public.
Americans have continually engaged in cultural clashes over the production and dissemination of ideas, art, and knowledge.
The use of state power to censor creative and political expression, despite First Amendment protections, has been a recurring tension in American society. Americans have continually engaged in cultural clashes over the production and dissemination of ideas, art, and knowledge. The ideal of free speech has frequently been tested, contested, and denied, both to individuals and to groups. Barriers to accessing this right continue to reflect persistent inequities in our society. Flashpoints will reflect on free speech as an unfinished freedom: one that must be continuously expanded and perfected by dismantling barriers, to ensure that everyone has an equal right to speak and be heard.
This initiative draws on many historical precedents. The 1873 Comstock Laws barring the circulation of “obscene literature and articles of immoral use” in the mail, the 1950s Hollywood blacklist, and tensions surrounding the censoring of historical material in schools throughout the 20th and now 21st centuries represent but a few examples of challenges to freedom of speech. Contemporary calls for book boycotts continue a long—and frequently racialized—history of book banning. Many who lead or join these calls today have little sense of this history and ignore such bans’ chilling effect on educators and students.
Flashpoints will highlight this history of censorship and ask questions about its consequences for sustaining civic culture. What are the legacies of laws that impeded the circulation of pamphlets about contraception in the 1910s? How has censorship in the McCarthy era influenced the production of theater, film, and television? How do arbitrary limits on academic inquiry or engagement with literature affect schools and universities, inhibiting students’ and scholars’ room to explore? In sum, what are the interconnections between official government censorship and the informal censoriousness that can arise within private institutions and in the public sphere?
Flashpoints will bring the tensions, contradictions, and benefits surrounding free speech to diverse public audiences.
PEN America, in collaboration with the AHA, is organizing informed, historically grounded discussions to underscore how essential precepts of free speech have been to every aspect of American society, including creative expression, women’s equality, civil rights, scientific advancement, social justice movements, and political change. Organized around thematic issues that span American history, Flashpoints will bring the tensions, contradictions, and benefits surrounding free speech to diverse public audiences.
We will delve into these questions and themes over the course of six public events around the country in 2022–23, featuring historians and other scholars. The first will be held in Chicago on May 18, 2022, with a discussion about “Free Speech and Political Dissent,” and next with “Free Speech and Civil Rights” on July 28, 2022, in Birmingham, Alabama. In the fall of 2022, the New York Public Library will co-host a discussion on “Free Speech and Banned Books.” The series continues with “Free Speech and Hollywood Censorship” at the Los Angeles Public Library and “Free Speech in Schools,” co-sponsored and hosted by the AHA at its annual meeting in Philadelphia. We finish in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by looking squarely at the issue of “Free Speech and Hate.” This event will explore the difficult balance of restricting hateful and derogatory speech while maintaining robust protections for free speech. Each location has been chosen either to take advantage of national convenings, like those of the AHA, or because of symbolic connections in these localities that resonate with historical flashpoints.
In addition to hosting these events, PEN America and the AHA will develop practical resources and discussion guides for educators and the public. Our online resource hub will include downloadable discussion guides, educational materials, cultural content intersecting literature with free speech advocacy, and professionally produced videos of each discussion in the series. Through direct engagement with local partners in target cities and the production of discussion guides and digital content, this pathbreaking series will compel Americans to reflect on free speech and civil liberties.
Everything has a history. The story of our nation is intertwined with the fight for free speech. In weaving together distinct but connected historical moments, Flashpoints will cover a diverse range of eras and enable conversations that evoke myriad tensions among unity, pluralism, and dissent, all of which have been core to the application of the First Amendment.
Leila Markosian is the free expression and education program assistant at PEN America. Kristen Shahverdian is the program manager of free expression and education at PEN America. Alexandra F. Levy is communications manager at the AHA; she tweets @AlexandraFL21.
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