PEN America Criticizes U.S. Human Rights Record (Update Oct 16, 2023)
PEN America submitted a report to the United Nations Committee on Civil and Political Rights on Tuesday criticizing the human rights record of the United States on free expression, discrimination, and privacy. The submission provides information about the increasing number of educational gag orders, book bans, and laws suppressing LGBTQ+ speech and drag performances. It also examines the negative impacts of current legislative proposals on privacy and child online safety.
“The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is a cornerstone of international human rights law and one of a handful of international conventions that the US has chosen to sign and ratify. The review process is, therefore, one of the few opportunities to assess the extent to which the U.S. is fulfilling its international human rights obligations,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, Inaugural Director, PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center.
“Given the considerable influence the U.S. wields on the global stage, PEN America’s report on the U.S. human rights situation is an urgent call to the U.S. to take immediate steps to address these violations. It is also an invitation to member states to press the U.S. to respect and fulfill its human rights obligations.”
In its submission, PEN America presented evidence highlighting violations of the right to nondiscrimination, particularly in relation to the increasing occurrences of educational gag orders, book bans, and the enactment of legislation suppressing LGBTQ+ speech and anti-drag measures including:
- Educational Gag Orders: PEN America found that educational gag orders unfairly target people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ individuals, amounting to discrimination. Under international human rights law, governments must not only prevent direct discrimination but also address consequences from facially neutral policies.
- Book Bans: PEN America’s Index on school book bans showcases over 4,000 instances of book bans affecting 2,253 unique titles through December 2022. Notably, 26% of banned books included LGBTQ+ content, and 30% addressed race or featured characters of color.
- LGBTQ+ Speech Suppression and Anti-Drag Measures: PEN America recorded at least 32 bills introduced across various states as of March 2023, targeting gender-nonconforming performances and expression, often under the pretext of protecting children. This nationwide push to exclude LGBTQ+ speech from constitutional protection raises serious concerns about discrimination, freedom of expression, and the well-being of LGBTQ+ individuals, including youth and children.
Additionally, PEN America expressed concern regarding infringements by the US government on the right to privacy by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and proposed laws dealing with children’s online safety and banning TikTok. These also all have potential negative implications on the right to free expression.
- Surveillance Reform: Section 702 of FISA allows the U.S. government to gather electronic communications from foreign individuals located outside of the U.S. if there is a possibility that these individuals possess foreign intelligence information. This overly broad language could lead to the inadvertent inclusion of personal, non-security-related conversations, undermining individuals’ privacy expectations in their communications and emphasizing the need to balance security with fundamental human rights.
- Children’s Online Safety Bills: These are several bills that require online platforms to prevent children from accessing harmful content, but their vague and overbroad nature makes it likely that platforms may over-censor, endangering user privacy and online free expression and disproportionately affecting marginalized communities. Additionally, the EARN IT Act, while aiming to combat child exploitation, could complicate law enforcement efforts, jeopardize encrypted services, and undermine digital security and confidentiality.
- TikTok Ban: A proposed nationwide TikTok ban, as suggested by U.S. lawmakers, would severely disrupt millions of users’ online activities, infringing on their privacy and freedom of expression while promoting surveillance of those attempting to access the platform. Such a wholesale ban on an expression and communication platform constitutes an arbitrary restriction and a significant violation of international law and fundamental human rights.
“In our increasingly interconnected world, challenges to freedom of expression within a single nation – particularly one as influential and vocal as the U.S. – inevitably have consequences that extend beyond borders,” Gerntholtz said. “We hope that the international community, as represented by the UN, will use its treaty authority to persuade the U.S. to reconsider these dangerous measures which threaten the country’s overall well-being and democracy, with serious potential for global ramifications.”
Read the report, which includes details of specific recommendations, here.
About PEN America
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more, visit PEN.org
For further information or to set up interviews, please contact: Dietlind Lerner, [email protected]