#100PENMembers No.72: Suzanne Nossel

Suzanne Nossel is a human rights advocate, author and the Chief Executive Officer of PEN America. 

She has led PEN America since 2013 and previously worked for Amnesty International and for the US State Department. During her tenure she has overseen the unification of PEN America with the Los Angeles-based PEN Center USA and the establishment of a Washington D.C. office to drive policy in the capital.

She is the author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All (2020), a set of principles to chart a course for free speech in the twenty-first century and one which crucially promotes equity and inclusion.

The book stresses the role and responsibility of the individual in maintaining free-speech and offers practical advice on speaking publicly including ‘How to be a Conscientious Speaker’ and ‘Good Apologies’.

As well as the book, in her role as CEO at PEN America she has taken a public stand on Free Speech issues in America, particularly around the use of the idea of free speech to support, in many cases, the repression of certain viewpoints and media outlets. She told the Quarantine Tapes podcast in November 2020 that: ‘the primary threat in this country, I believe, has been this administration, which has run roughshod over the First Amendment, threatening and retaliating against journalists for critical coverage. We’re responding right now to an announcement that they may be sanctioning some of the partner organizations we work with, very respectable organizations like Oxfam and Human Rights Watch, that this administration is smearing as not credible.’

She also highlighted the importance of ‘writers and intellectuals to help us process the trauma of the last four years and particularly this year, and analyze it and begin to bridge across some of these divisions.’

Most recently, she has supported the awarding of the 2021 PEN/Benenson Courage Award to Darnella Frazer, the young woman who documented the killing of George Floyd on her mobile phone. The tape helped to direct the world’s attention toward the ongoing tide of police violence against African Americans, sparking protests across the world. The evidence on the tape helped to lead to the successful prosecution of Floyd’s killer in a landmark ruling that many hope will help to begin to address the issue of police violence against black citizens in the US.

Nossel said of the award which was given in December 2020: ‘With nothing more than a cell phone and sheer guts, Darnella changed the course of history in this country, sparking a bold movement demanding an end to systemic anti-Black racism and violence at the hands of police,

‘With remarkable steadiness, Darnella carried out the expressive act of bearing witness, and allowing hundreds of millions around the world to see what she saw. Without Darnella’s presence of mind and readiness to risk her own safety and wellbeing, we may never have known the truth about George Floyd’s murder. We are proud to recognize her exceptional courage with this award.’

Nossel’s strategic and thoughtful leadership continues to keep PEN America at the forefront of free speech debates nationally and internationally.

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