Listen to this event (1:18:16)

PEN American Center is delighted to be sponsoring this event with the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, and the Association of American Publishers. You will please note that all four organizations have proudly inserted the name American in their titles. This is no accident, because the rights and principles that we represent, far from being alien to this country, are firmly rooted in our charter documents, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Historians are always trotted out to provide context and perspective. And so as not to disappoint you, I duly waded through books about James Madison and the creation of the Bill of Rights. I was certain that, in reviewing the original congressional debates over the First Amendment, I would unearth quotes so trenchant that you would be dazzled by their splendor. Well, guess what? I found something far more interesting. The First Amendment was virtually adopted by Congress without debate. As one historian wrote: “No one spoke about the importance of a free press in a democratic republic and whether there might have to be any measures to control or protect the press….There was, in fact, no discussion of any of the issues that have become so important in First Amendment constitutional law.”

That eloquent silence testified to the unanimous agreement on the benefits of the First Amendment. Nothing has been more squarely in the American grain than the right to speak and publish freely. We want to say today, as readers and writers, as booksellers and librarians, that government actions should expand, not shrink, the private space in which literature and journalism flourish. At this time of undoubted national peril, Americans need more, not less, information about the choices before them. The founders, in their wisdom, did not write any exceptions into the First Amendment, but enunciated the right to a free press with stark and pristine simplicity. This is the time, however awkward, however uncomfortable, however problematic, when we need those lonely voices of dissent even more than the chorus of approval.

In the past, PEN American Center and other groups involved with free expression have indulged in the luxury of practicing what Charles Dickens once called “telescopic philanthropy”—that is, we spent much more time investigating harassment of the press abroad than at home. That reflected the comforting reality that our government not only applauded press freedom at home but actively cooperated with us in denouncing attacks on journalists abroad. Sadly, we enjoy no such luxury today. The same federal government, Republican and Democrat, that once helped us to expose crackdowns on the press in Russia, China, and Nigeria is now turning up the heat on the press here at home. This, I fear, will come back to haunt us as we trumpet the virtues of democracy abroad in combatting international terrorism.

I think we should always be alarmed when there’s a growing imbalance betwen what the government knows about its citizens, and what those citizens, in turn, know about their government. A healthy, functioning democracy should strike a balance of power and knowledge between citizens and government. And we’re here today to register our grave concern that that balance is tipping too far toward government under the banner of national security.

All the people on our panel have courted great risks and faced government reprisals either for prying loose vital information from the government or for shielding reader privacy from official intrusions. For the 3,300 writers of PEN American Center, along with our publishing, library, and bookselling colleagues, our panelists today, far from seeming like traitors or scoundrels, are champions in the best American tradition of asserting the public’s right to know.