Events

PAST EVENTS

“HURT SENTIMENTS" AND FORBIDDEN SPEECH IN INDIA / NEETI NAIR University of Virginia

Thu. January 21, 5:00-6:30 pm / Zoom links emailed to attendees

RECENT COMMENTARY ON INDIA has referred to the country becoming a “republic of hurt sentiments.” In this live recording of the Mitchell Center Podcast, historian NEETI NAIR will gauge the state of free speech and secularism in India by analyzing the reasons behind the censorship (and rampant/limited circulation) of two texts. One is the assassin Nathuram Godse’s defense statement in the Gandhi murder case of 1948; and the other is four lines on the Ramayana epic, dating back over two millennia, that caught the unwanted attentions of a Hindu vigilante political party in 1993, then on the fringes of Indian politics. Her conversation with host MATTHEW BERKMAN will touch on other issues of free expression as well and will be followed by Q&A from the webinar audience. Read Prof. Nair's essay and other materials here.

Co-sponsored by Penn's South Asia Center.

THE MISINFORMATION REVOLUTION (AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT)

 

RAHUL SAGAR NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Shanghai

Thu. March 25, 5:00-6:30 pm / Zoom links emailed to attendees
 

Note: This event is reserved for the University of Pennsylvania community.
Please register with your valid Penn email address.

MISINFORMATION IS AS OLD AS CIVILIZATION ITSELF. History is replete with vivid examples of deception, propaganda, and conspiracy. Indeed, these practices have long been seen, for instance in Plato’s Republic or Machiavelli’s Prince, as necessary and perhaps even legitimate means of control. Political scientist RAHUL SAGAR argues that we are now on the cusp of a new age, however, as the reach and effects of misinformation have been revolutionized by two comparatively recent developments: technology that allows practically anyone to circulate information widely, and liberal values that decry intervention in the “marketplace of ideas”.

 

With substantial sections of the population believing “alternative facts” about everything from “his birth certificate” and “her emails” to the efficacy of masks and harms of pandemics, we are descending into what Barack Obama has called an “epistemological crisis.” The liberal response to this has been to criticize particular actors as malicious, whether Russia, Fox News, or Donald Trump. There is, however, no reason to expect such criticism to make them stop.

 

If liberal societies really wish to confront the incipient epistemological crisis, Sagar contends, they will need to enter into the admittedly messy business of vigorously regulating the marketplace of ideas. Fortunately, there may be lessons to be learnt from others’ experiences. Drawing on Singapore’s landmark Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), Sagar considers when and how to regulate online speech, and on what moral basis, while fully recognizing the practical challenges involved in enforcing such regulations. Read Prof. Sagar's essay here.

Annenberg Logos.png

BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
Securing the Future of Independent News

 

MARK THOMPSON Outgoing CEO, New York Times

Tue. October 13, 5:00-6:30 pm / Zoom links emailed to attendees

SERIOUS INDEPENDENT JOURNALISM FACES two existential threats: economic destruction because of the failure of so many news organizations to find an adequate response to the digital challenge; and political and cultural rejection, not just by a new generation of populist leaders but by activists and pressure groups across the ideological spectrum. MARK THOMPSON, the outgoing CEO of The New York Times and a former Director-General of the BBC, explores these two – profoundly interconnected threats – and proposes how the news business can fight back and secure its own future.

 

This event is also the Annenberg Lecture. It is co-sponsored by the Annenberg School for Communication, the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and the Center for Media @ Risk.

READ MARK THOMPSON'S ESSAY HERE

THE OPENING OF A WHITE NATIONALIST MIND

DEREK BLACK Former White Nationalist

Thu. October 29, 5:00-6:30 pm / Zoom links emailed to attendees

GROWING UP AS THE SON OF POPULAR radio host Don Black, who is credited with coining the term "white nationalism," DEREK BLACK became well-versed in the strategic use of speech: how, for instance, the subtle semantic shift from "white supremacy" to "white nationalism" helped racist ideas gain wider currency and acceptance. When he entered college, he encountered a different array of speech strategies aimed at countering his beliefs, ranging from outright shunning by outraged protesters to patient challenges to his beliefs by fellow students who accepted him as a person. These experiences have given him a unique vantage point not only on the roots of white nationalism and the ways it might be countered, but on both the deep value and potential dangers of free expression.

CAMPUS SPEECH BATTLES: A CONFERENCE

 

Thu. 9/24, 5-6:30 pm; Fri. 9/25, 12-1:30 pm & 3:30-5 pm; and

Tue. 9/29, 5-6:30 pm / Zoom links emailed to attendees

 

STUDENT SPEECH AND ADMINISTRATIVE RESPONSES
CERRI BANKS (Skidmore College) and HOWARD GILLMAN (UC-Irvine)
Thu. September 24, 5-6:30 pm

 

THE CHICAGO STATEMENT TODAY
GEOFFREY STONE (University of Chicago Law School)
Fri. September 25, 12:00-1:30 pm

 

CURRENT FREE SPEECH CHALLENGES ON CAMPUS AND BEYOND
NADINE STROSSEN (New York Law School) and JOHN POWELL (Berkeley Law School)
Fri. September 25, 3:30-5:00 pm

 

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND STUDENT ACTIVISM
JOAN WALLACH SCOTT (Institute for Advanced Study) and HENRY REICHMAN (California State University, East Bay)
Tue. September 29, 5:00-6:30 pm

Co-sponsors: Penn GSE, SNF Paideia Program, The Jack Miller Center

READ PANELIST ESSAYS HERE

BOYCOTTS AS FREE SPEECH: BDS AND BEYOND

GENEVIEVE LAKIER University of Chicago Law School

BRIAN BERKEY Wharton School

AMANDA SHANOR Wharton School

Thu. November 19, 6:00-7:30 pm / Zoom links emailed to attendees
Co-sponsored by the SNF Paideia Program.

 

BOYCOTTS OF CONSUMER GOODS as a means of applying political pressure have been part of American life since the first rumblings of the American Revolution. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the movement to divest from South Africa demonstrated the continuing salience of this strategy. Recently, however, the call by the BDS movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction businesses and organizations associated with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has been met by state laws outlawing such actions. Ethicist BRIAN BERKEY and legal scholars GENEVIEVE LAKIER and AMANDA SHANOR examine the First Amendment issues at play in this and similar conflicts. Read Prof. Lakier's essay here.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE FIRST AMENDMENT

 

FARA DABHOIWALA Princeton University

Thu. February 18, 5:00-6:30 pm / Zoom links emailed to attendees

INNOVATIVE HISTORY CAN NOT ONLY HELP EXPLAIN how we arrived at our current free speech predicaments, but also suggest ways of navigating and re-thinking them. FARA DABHOIWALA goes back to the invention of political free speech, in 18th century London, to uncover its secret, corrupt origins. Around 1700, “freedom of speech” remained an obscure concept. It was mainly used to describe MPs’ right to debate freely in Parliament, and by advocates of greater liberty of religious publication. Then, in the early 1720s, there suddenly appeared a text that rapidly established free speech in general as a central ideal, the very foundation of all political liberty: a series of newspaper essays by the Whig journalists John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, using the pseudonym “Cato.” These writings proved to be immensely influential: not least as a prime source of American revolutionary ideas, and a direct influence on the First Amendment.

  

What these first theorists of free speech presumed, and what they chose to ignore, strongly determined the peculiar shape of the First Amendment. Revealing how partial the ideology of free speech has always been, Dabhoiwala suggests, allows us to address afresh the dilemmas of our own age of media revolutions, partisanship, fake news, hate speech, and demagoguery. Read Prof. Dabhoiwala's essay here.

SPRING 2021

FREE SPEECH BATTLES Co-sponsors: Penn Graduate School of Education, Annenberg School for Communication, Annenberg Public Policy Institute, Center for Media@Risk, and SNF Paideia Program

SILENCE IS VIOLENCE, AND SO IS SPEECH LANGUAGE AND POWER SINCE THE REAGAN YEARS

 

MATT SHAFER Penn Mitchell Center Postdoctoral Fellow

Tue. April 27, 5:00-6:30 pm / Zoom links emailed to attendees

OVER THE LAST SEVERAL DECADES, academics and activists alike have developed a range of perspectives on how speech and discourse function as a sphere of social and political power — and how language itself can become a form of violence. Andrea Mitchell Center Postdoctoral Fellow and political theorist MATT SHAFER examines where these ideas came from, what problems they have helped us understand, and why debates about them today can still feel so fraught. It might seem a contradiction for activists to talk both about how speech can be violent and about how silence can be too; and today, indeed, many commentators, academic and non-academic alike, have suggested that the term "violence" is now used for so much that it has become meaningless. Shafer pushes back against these skeptical conclusions, while taking seriously the concerns that motivate them, to suggest how we might think about language and power in ways that move beyond the impasse of contemporary debates on campus and beyond. Read Prof. Shafer's essay here.

INTERNET SPEECH AND DEMOCRATIC POLITICS

JAIME SETTLE College of William and Mary

Thu. December 10, 5:00-6:30 pm / Zoom links emailed to attendees
Co-sponsored by the
SNF Paideia Program.

WHEN WE CONSIDER THE POTENTIAL THREATS POSED by social media to our democracy, we tend to focus on bad actors and their malicious intent. From this standpoint, the task of protecting democracy while preserving legitimate speech is a matter of targeting the trolls and bots that distort online discourse. JAIME SETTLE, author of Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America, suggests that the problem goes deeper. It may be that the forms of expression found on social media undermine, in and of themselves, the mutual tolerance required by a functioning democracy – that we become our own worst enemies. In the face of this challenge, Settle offers a framework to reduce polarization while upholding free speech rights.

A RIGHT TO LIE? PRESIDENTS, OTHER LIARS, AND THE FIRST AMENDMENT

 

CATHERINE J. ROSS George Washington University Law School

Thu. April 15, 5:00-6:30 pm
Zoom links emailed to attendees

IN HER UPCOMING BOOK, A Right to Lie? Presidents, Other Liars, and the First Amendment, CATHERINE J. ROSS examines the tension between the First Amendment’s protections for free speech and the need to combat the spread of lies that endanger democracy. Verifiable factual falsehoods are rife throughout the public square today, but former President Donald J. Trump’s unparalleled mendacity and its consequences for the nation – measured in threats to electoral legitimacy, COVID-19 deaths, and economic devastation – highlighted the urgent need to confront deception.

Using dramatic stories and cases – from a false Medal of Honor claimant, to birtherism and misuse of defamation claims, to lies in political campaigns – Ross explains why the First Amendment’s guarantee of freewheeling democratic debate means that the Constitution protects most lies. The state, courts hold, cannot become the arbiter of what is true or false, not least because it can often prove impossible to agree on what amounts to falsehood.

Despite the obstacles to regulating public falsehoods in most settings, Ross argues that a mendacious president’s power to damage the body politic, and indeed society as a whole, poses a danger that justifies overriding a liar’s speech rights.

The First Amendment, she argues, is not the problem when it comes to presidential lies: lack of political will, abdication of congressional responsibility, and broader societal fault lines undermine potential solutions. Ross analyzes a question that first came up when Congress threatened President Richard Nixon with impeachment for, among other things, lying to the American public. On what grounds can a president be impeached for lies that do not violate any law? The question arose again with Presidents Clinton and Trump but has never been scrutinized or answered until now.

Ross proposes an approach consistent with First Amendment doctrine and the separation of powers: presidents work for us, they are subject to the lesser speech rights applicable to government employees, and Congress should use its oversight authority to hold the president to a standard of truth.

You can read Prof. Ross's essay here.

Ross Book Cover.jpg

PRESIDENTIAL LIES, THE FIRST AMENDMENT, AND DEMOCRACY

 

CATHERINE J. ROSS George Washington University Law School

Thu. April 15, 5:00-6:30 pm / Zoom links emailed to attendees

A discount code 20% off Prof. Ross's book (plus free shipping) will be shared with registered attendees during her talk.

IN HER UPCOMING BOOK, A Right to Lie? Presidents, Other Liars, and the First Amendment, CATHERINE J. ROSS examines the tension between the First Amendment’s protections for free speech and the need to combat the spread of lies that endanger democracy. Verifiable factual falsehoods are rife throughout the public square today, but former President Donald J. Trump’s unparalleled mendacity and its consequences for the nation – measured in threats to electoral legitimacy, COVID-19 deaths, and economic devastation – highlighted the urgent need to confront deception.

Using dramatic stories and cases – from a false Medal of Honor claimant, to birtherism and misuse of defamation claims, to lies in political campaigns – Ross explains why the First Amendment’s guarantee of freewheeling democratic debate means that the Constitution protects most lies. The state, courts hold, cannot become the arbiter of what is true or false, not least because it can often prove impossible to agree on what amounts to falsehood.

Despite the obstacles to regulating public falsehoods in most settings, Ross argues that a mendacious president’s power to damage the body politic, and indeed society as a whole, poses a danger that justifies overriding a liar’s speech rights.

The First Amendment, she argues, is not the problem when it comes to presidential lies: lack of political will, abdication of congressional responsibility, and broader societal fault lines undermine potential solutions. Ross analyzes a question that first came up when Congress threatened President Richard Nixon with impeachment for, among other things, lying to the American public. On what grounds can a president be impeached for lies that do not violate any law? The question arose again with Presidents Clinton and Trump but has never been scrutinized or answered until now.

Ross proposes an approach consistent with First Amendment doctrine and the separation of powers: presidents work for us, they are subject to the lesser speech rights applicable to government employees, and Congress should use its oversight authority to hold the president to a standard of truth.

You can read Prof. Ross's essay here.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE FIRST AMENDMENT

 

FARA DABHOIWALA Princeton University

Thu. February 18, 5:00-6:30 pm / Zoom links emailed to attendees

INNOVATIVE HISTORY CAN NOT ONLY HELP EXPLAIN how we arrived at our current free speech predicaments, but also suggest ways of navigating and re-thinking them. FARA DABHOIWALA goes back to the invention of political free speech, in 18th century London, to uncover its secret, corrupt origins. Around 1700, “freedom of speech” remained an obscure concept. It was mainly used to describe MPs’ right to debate freely in Parliament, and by advocates of greater liberty of religious publication. Then, in the early 1720s, there suddenly appeared a text that rapidly established free speech in general as a central ideal, the very foundation of all political liberty: a series of newspaper essays by the Whig journalists John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, using the pseudonym “Cato.” These writings proved to be immensely influential: not least as a prime source of American revolutionary ideas, and a direct influence on the First Amendment.

  

What these first theorists of free speech presumed, and what they chose to ignore, strongly determined the peculiar shape of the First Amendment. Revealing how partial the ideology of free speech has always been, Dabhoiwala suggests, allows us to address afresh the dilemmas of our own age of media revolutions, partisanship, fake news, hate speech, and demagoguery.

THE MISINFORMATION REVOLUTION (AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT)

 

RAHUL SAGAR New York University

Thu. March 25, 5:00-6:30 pm / Zoom links emailed to attendees
 

Note: This event is reserved for the University of Pennsylvania community.
Please register with your valid Penn email address.

MISINFORMATION IS AS OLD AS CIVILIZATION ITSELF. History is replete with vivid examples of deception, propaganda, and conspiracy. Indeed, these practices have long been seen, for instance in Plato’s Republic or Machiavelli’s Prince, as necessary and perhaps even legitimate means of control. Political scientist RAHUL SAGAR argues that we are now on the cusp of a new age, however, as the reach and effects of misinformation have been revolutionized by two comparatively recent developments: technology that allows practically anyone to circulate information widely, and liberal values that decry intervention in the “marketplace of ideas”.

 

With substantial sections of the population believing “alternative facts” about everything from “his birth certificate” and “her emails” to the efficacy of masks and harms of pandemics, we are descending into what Barack Obama has called an “epistemological crisis.” The liberal response to this has been to criticize particular actors as malicious, whether Russia, Fox News, or Donald Trump. There is, however, no reason to expect such criticism to make them stop.

 

If liberal societies really wish to confront the incipient epistemological crisis, Sagar contends, they will need to enter into the admittedly messy business of vigorously regulating the marketplace of ideas. Fortunately, there may be lessons to be learnt from others’ experiences. Drawing on Singapore’s landmark Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), Sagar considers when and how to regulate online speech, and on what moral basis, while fully recognizing the practical challenges involved in enforcing such regulations.