Suzanne Nossell visits UR
Students Will Iboshi and Shelby Campbell share a laugh with PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel and President Kevin F. Hallock.

All due respect: Speaker series helps students navigate differing views

April 2, 2024


Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, joined President Kevin F. Hallock on Friday as part of the Sharp Viewpoint Series, which is meant to foster important and challenging dialogues. Before the event at the Modlin Center for the Arts, Nossel met with a small group of UR student leaders to discuss her work with PEN America and field questions about free speech.

This year’s Sharp Series theme is "Speaking About Speech: Dialogue, Difference, and Civil Discourse." Nossel is one of the experts the University invited to campus to discuss the importance of building and practicing skills for engaging in conversation over differing experiences and perspectives — one of the University’s strategic priorities.

Top of mind for many students attending the discussion was the difficulty of discussing a wide range of domestic and international issues in the broadest sense.

“When you get into a situation where someone comes in a bit hot in the conversation, or maybe you’re in that position, how do you handle the conversation to preserve civil discourse?” asked sophomore Katie Sinclair, a political science major who is a student fellow with the Gary L. McDowell Institute.

Nossel, who has written on the topic in her book, Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, told the students to be conscious of what happens when having an emotional reaction, and then take steps to stop a possible escalation.

Students appreciated the guidance Nossel offered on how they might react in the moment. She suggested trying to understand another person’s perspective by asking what led them to that position or if they’ve had an experience that informed what they said.

Finally, she said, after seeking a different perspective in this way, students could ask about offering their own perspective, and then ask the other person what they thought of it.

“You’re finding a way to assert yourself and put forward your point of view — not necessarily a direct confrontation,” Nossel said.

Senior Campbell Finch, a political science major and a member of the President’s Student Advisory Board and a fellow in the McDowell Institute, wondered about expressing differing viewpoints in a tight-knit community.

“I think because of social media, people feel like that everywhere,” Nossel said. In March 2023, she testified before Congress on the importance of protecting free speech and academic freedom on campus. Since 2016, PEN America has worked extensively on issues related to campus speech, documenting the mounting threats from both the left and the right.

Lately, Nossel said, she believes students may not arrive with the skill sets necessary to engage in discussions on difficult topics with people from a wide range of backgrounds. Colleges should set the expectation that there will be a free give and take of opinions, she said.

“It is important to hit the ground running and establish that culture of academic freedom and safe spaces to be academically curious here on campus,” said sophomore Kate Chasin, a leadership studies major and McDowell Institute Student Fellow, after the discussion.

“It’s extremely timely to have somebody here to talk about free speech, and to say it’s okay to talk about these issues,” she said. “It’s healthy and necessary.”