June 18, 2018

PEN America Presents: Can Free Speech Be Saved? | BookExpo 2018

Image via PEN America; L-R: Jill Abramson, DeRay Mckesson, Jose Antonio Vargas

PEN America assembled a trio of author-advocates to talk about the past and present state of free speech in the United States at BookExpo on Thursday, May 31. Moderated by Katy Glenn Bass, Director of Free Expression Policy and Research for PEN America, the panel, Can Free Speech Be Saved? included former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, author and activist DeRay Mckesson, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas.

Mckesson, author of On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope (Sept. ’18, Viking) plainly stated, “There’s no way to think about free speech without thinking about the severe imbalance in power,” especially when black and brown bodies are on the line. He referred to Charlottesville, where we saw white people physically push police officers, and reminded the audience that could be a fatal decision for black men. “In some ways, we are drowning in free speech,” maintained Abramson, author of The Merchants of Truth: The Business of Facts and the Future of News (Jan. ’19, S. & S.). She worries quality discourse is being drowned out, and that we’re going to make mistakes in the rush to relegate and reform fake news.

Vargas, author of Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen (Sept. ’18, Dey St.) passionately shared details about his life as an undocumented immigrant. “I’ve been in the country since I was 12, and I can’t leave.” Books are a method of freedom for him. “Our freedom to express ourselves is a kind of citizenship.”

Upon finding out he was undocumented, the first thing Vargas did was rid himself of his Filipino accent. He explained his decision to attend Tea Party events, where many have never met an undocumented immigrant before. Explaining the frequent misconceptions and lies about immigrants, he cautioned us not to underestimate how lies can easily be misunderstood. The most common question he receives is, “What do you mean you can’t just become legal?” He is still surprised how many people equate “Mexican” with “illegal,” noting that most Mexicans are here legally. Vargas reminded the audience that immigration is often framed in the mainstream media as a political issue.

Abramson agreed, adding that we have a media that thrives on conflict and a society where people on opposing ends of the spectrum don’t want to hear each other; people exist in their self-selected echo chambers that rarely challenge what they already believe. “People are more in love with the idea of resistance than the work of resistance,” said Mckesson. He also mentioned the careful use of language phrasing; for example, using the term police violence rather than police brutality since violence sounds consistent while brutality sounds episodic. Speaking to the relevant coverage on Twitter and breaking news, Mckesson stated, “If we had not told our stories, nobody else would have.”

Vargas asked why white people can just move while brown people can’t. “I’m staggered by how much media there is on immigration, but nothing on why…I bend over backwards to understand why people think my presence is a threat to American democracy.” In response, Mckesson mentioned the historical roots of whiteness white supremacy.

Vargas: People don’t always know what  whiteness is.

Mckesson: You don’t have to know what it is to benefit.

Vargas: They don’t know what they’re benefiting.

The discussion became heated when discussing the Times’ reluctance to call Trump’s actions racist. Abramson stated that they did call him racist once, and called the decision brave. Mckesson responded, “Bravery is calling him racist every time, not one time,” generating much applause. Vargas brought up the issue of trust, especially in relating to local news. He showed how most people who get deported don’t go to NPR; they do to Univision or Telemuno. As a result, there are numerous stories that never make the mainstream media. A lot of white people have gotten too comfortable, he maintained, and that we should all share the discomfort. Responding to a question of whether speech is free, Mckesson asked, “Free for who?”

Watch a video of the full panel here.

About Stephanie Sendaula

Stephanie Sendaula (ssendaula@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor at Library Journal.

Share

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    “[P]eople exist in their self-selected echo chambers that rarely challenge what they already believe” is a quote from the article but should have been the title. The folks PEN America assembled were not there to discuss whether free speech “can be saved”, but to quarrel over which specific limiting of free speech is most morally superior.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  4. Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media, per our Terms of Use.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind

*