For journalists worldwide, 2017 ranks as one of the most dangerous on record: Eighteen journalists were killed, according to Freedom House, while 189 currently languish in prisons around the world. Here at home, meanwhile, the safety and sanctity of journalism is threatened by a president who regularly attacks the press, handpicks which organizations can attend White House briefings, and compulsively sells falsities as reality.
Such was the crux of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speech Sunday night at the Cooper Union, which closed out the weeklong PEN World Voices Festival. Joining the ranks of past speakers such as Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens, Umberto Eco, and Sonia Sotomayor, Clinton had been chosen to give this year’s annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture — which traditionally addresses current challenges to free expression — based on her work defending human rights and free speech as secretary of state. Said PEN CEO Suzanne Nossel in her deeply personal introduction — Nossel served under Clinton as a deputy assistant secretary of state — the efforts of the former secretary had “helped secure the freedom to write for tens of millions worldwide.”
Clinton used her 45-minute speech to sound the alarm that freedom of speech and expression is currently under attack here in our own country. The target of a Russian-led disinformation campaign during her 2016 run for president, Clinton was a fitting choice to talk about the new dangers facing not just those in this country who report the news, but also those of us who read and absorb it. She spoke of the election as “a case study in the weaponization of false information and outright lies against our democracy,” detailing foreign agents’ use of social media to plant false stories and sow not only distrust in her candidacy, but division throughout the country. And she stressed the danger we face living under a president who “seems to reject the role of a free press in our democracy” and who distorts facts and continually lies, even about things as obvious as, say, the size of an inaugural crowd.
“When leaders deny things that we can see with our own eyes,” she said, “it’s not just frustrating to those of us who try to live in a fact-based universe. It is the beginning of the end of freedom. And that’s not hyperbole. It’s what authoritarian regimes throughout history have done.” To drive her point home, she noted that earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would begin monitoring the activities of reporters and media professionals.
Clinton ended her speech with a call to action, not just for the writers in the room but for the American people at large. “We have to find our voice, in whatever way we are comfortable, to speak out,” she said, later adding: “Everyone’s voices need to be raised at this time.”
“Do not grow weary — be sustained by the energy that the truth can give you,” she continued. “I have no doubt we will get our country back on the right track.”
The Q&A that followed with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — the author of the award-winning novel Americanah, and herself the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write speaker in 2015 — was warm and engaging in covering a variety of topics, from the personal to the political, from Clinton’s decision to run for office to her passionate hopes for how we can conquer the divisiveness currently plaguing the country. But the themes of free speech and vigilance against its suppression resurfaced time after time. Clinton spoke again of the weaponization of misinformation that occurred during the election — and continues today — noting how the false stories that were circulated during her campaign were so credible because they were delivered in a way, via social media, that looked like news.
“You have to wonder: How do we stop this?” she asked. “Because we’re living in a time when information can be so powerful, and if it’s wrong, or it’s intended to influence you to do something that is not reality-based but based instead on propaganda, that’s a problem that we have to deal with going forward.” When Adichie asked if this is why she has chosen to keep speaking post-election, Clinton nodded and said that it was.
She and Adichie also discussed how free speech has been a central cause for feminism, with Clinton noting the “long, long history of trying to silence women.” She cited recent instances of attempts to shut down the voices of powerful political women — from Elizabeth Warren, who was removed from the Senate floor as she attempted to read Coretta Scott King’s letter denouncing Jeff Sessions (a letter that was then read out loud to completion by male colleagues), to Kamala Harris, who was told to stop talking during her questioning of Sessions in his Senate hearing on Russia’s involvement in the Trump campaign.
“In my case, it was also because a lot of those same people who said, ‘Don’t talk,’ they did not want to face what happened in the 2016 election,” she later said, addressing Adichie’s question about calls, from both the right and the left, for her to remain quiet following her presidential defeat. But, she said, “I come at it very differently: If we don’t try to understand what happened in that election, we are doomed to see it repeated in future elections.”