Support for free speech in the U.S. is under strain, threatened by government, academic leaders, Twitter mobs, and uneven public support. Surveys reveal significant gaps in public understanding of the First Amendment, and that many college students are willing to curtail speech in the name of protecting people from harm. These challenges reflect the insufficiency of civic education in the U.S., and a persistent failure to reconcile free speech with principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion. How can we normalize an appreciation for free expression principles to ensure a robust democratic culture for future generations? How can we mend misconceptions and show how speech can be a catalytic vehicle for social change as opposed to a force at odds with progress?
To answer these questions, PEN America has conceptualized the Free Speech for a Rising Generation Project. This project will include five programs: introductory free speech advocacy institutes; advanced deep-dive advocacy courses; a leadership program for college students; a twice monthly discussion series featuring guest dissidents, writers, artists, journalists and free speech experts; and a national free speech essay competition.
We expect the ripple effects from this project to be extraordinary. With support from the John Templeton Foundation, we will provide over 2,500 students with robust free speech advocacy education that will energize them and transform their perspective on the power of free speech and their own role as citizens in a democracy. From students who participated in our 2020 pilot program, we have already heard striking stories about how PEN America inspired them to speak out in support of free speech, discover new career ambitions, and even form their own advocacy groups. Beyond the duration of the project, PEN America expects to see a reinvigorated understanding of free speech as the bedrock of our democracy among members of the rising generation.