An interview with Jeremy C. Young, PEN America’s senior manager of free expression and education
“Can it happen here?” That question was posed by Sinclair Lewis in a novel written in 1935, as fascism swept much of the world. Reading It Can’t Happen Here dares readers—then and now—to ponder whether “American exceptionalism” exempts the U.S. from becoming a totalitarian society. Today, as democracy is challenged amidst a growing wave of school gags, book bans and more, Jeremy C. Young, a leading opponent of censorship, boldly declares, “What we’re seeing now really is a mortal threat to free speech.”
Young is the senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, an organization of writers established in 1922. According to the Manhattan-based nonprofit’s website, it is “the largest of the more than 100 centers worldwide that make up the PEN International network. PEN America works to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to access the views, ideas and literatures of others.”
As Young describes it, his role for PEN America “is to primarily help lead the charge against censorship in the schools, against educational gag orders—this new wave of attacks on free expression in the classroom.”
In our candid conversation, the former history professor tackles classroom censorship, book bans, surveillance of educators, and the limits to freedom of speech in a democratic society—if any.
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