Last year’s BookExpo Ambassador Award winner, PEN America, returned to the Javits Center this year for a panel called “Can Free Speech Be Saved?,” which featured two veteran journalists, as well as a civil rights activist. The panel focused as much on the meaning of free speech in an era of “fake news” and deep racial tensions as on the practice of saving it.
Asked for a general take on free speech today by moderator Katy Glenn Bass, director of PEN America’s Free Expression Policy and Research, DeRay Mckesson, a civil rights activist and author of the upcoming On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope (Viking), stressed that, in conversations about free speech today, it is imperative that the imbalance of power in society is also mentioned. “When brown bodies and black bodies start to think about speech as free, enforcement is a real challenge,” he said, mentioning his activist work in Ferguson, Mo., following the killing of Michael Brown in 2014 and the rhetoric that surrounded the protests in its wake. “I don’t know how to talk about the idea of free speech without talking about the practice of enforcement.”
Jill Abramson, the veteran journalist and former executive editor of the New York Times and author of the upcoming The Merchants of Truth: The Business of Facts and the Future of News (SS), focused not on the loss of speech, but on the degradation of it. “In some ways, we’re literally drowning in speech, especially when you talk about social media,” she said. “I’m not worried that we’re losing speech. I’m worried that quality discourse is being drowned out.” Another concern, she added, is the cultural panic over fake news—and what that will mean once lawmakers take action: “I’m scared that in the rush to reform and regulate Russian bots and…false news outlets and media manipulation that we’re going to see calls from Washington and overseers in Europe to regulate.”
Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author of the upcoming Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen (Dey Street), who does not have American citizenship and is thus unable to leave the country, spoke about the importance of discourse as something that can cross borders others can’t. “I can’t physically leave this country. But this book that I’ve been working on is probably the closest I’ve been to being free—it can go to my mom in the Philippines,” he said “Words, and our freedom to use speech, is in itself a kind of citizenship.”
Framing was an important focus of the conversation, especially as it moved to digital platforms and, in particular, Twitter, where President Donald Trump—who, Abramson quipped, as the “Tweeter-in-Chief,” has effectively become the country’s “Framer-in-Chief” as well—has in many ways set expectations for how cultural conversation around political issues will be held. “Of course the press has to cover what the president says or tweets,” Abramson continued. “But so much of the news coverage has become reactive to Donald Trump’s tweets… The Framer-in-Chief is the president right now. As long as that’s true, it’s difficult to get into the deeper layers of information.”
Mckesson noted many how media outlets have been seemingly hesitant to call the president out as a liar. “Trump does things that, his intents notwithstanding, the impact is so disparate that our unwillingness not to call it out every time, even though it sounds like a broken record, is a choice,” Mckesson said. “I don’t think we should compromise on that.”
He later added: “When I think about this question of free speech, it is a question of, well, ‘free for who?’”