PEN America Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of September 25

By: Manal Khan

September 29, 2023

Advocacy, News & Analysis

PEN America works tirelessly to defend free expression, support persecuted writers, and promote literary culture. Here are some of the latest ways PEN America is speaking out.

  • PEN America leadership and Trustees met with White House and State Department officials and members of Congress to discuss advocacy of free expression worldwide.

  • PEN America is expanding its program of events and actions this Banned Books Week to the full month of October, organizing with writers, actors, artists, publishers, and others who are stepping up to defend the freedom to read. Find our events here.
  • PEN America is partnering with Writers Guild Initiative and Unite Against Book Bans to bring together more than 20 actors, and writers to spread the word about book bans by creating videos about their favorite banned books. The videos will be shared on social media to highlight the Banned Books Weekday of action on October 7. 
  • Nadine Farid Johnson, managing director of PEN America’s Washington office and Free Expression programs, joined U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland at a press conference condemning the sweeping attacks against the First Amendment rights of students, parents, and educators. Johnson said: “Book bans are anathema to democracy. These resolutions reaffirm the freedom to read as both foundational for a pluralistic, democratic society and critical to the formation of an informed citizenry.”
  • CEO Suzanne Nossel congratulated the end of the 148-day-long strike called by the Writers Guild Association. “This agreement did not come easily; thousands of individuals engaged in the creative economy were deeply impacted by the work stoppage. Our own Screenwriters Emergency Financial Assistance Fund was a small gesture of support, and we recognize the sacrifices of so many to reach this agreement.” 
  • PEN America urged the Turkish government to dismiss all charges against renowned sociologist and writer Pınar Selek ahead of her hearing at the Istanbul Criminal Court on September 29. Justin Shilad, PEN America’s research and advocacy lead for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “The Turkish government’s relentless persecution of Pınar Selek comes from their fear of her ability to amplify marginalized voices through her research on minority rights and Kurdish communities. ”
  • PEN America Freedom of Expression experts have compiled a resource hub for people who want to speak against censorship in school board meetings. Find the letter and more information here.
  • PEN America condemned attacks on filmmaker Agnieszka Holland by the Polish government following the premiere of her movie Green Border, which tells the story of Syrian and Afghan refugees trying to reach Europe via the Belarusian border. Polina Sadovskaya, advocacy and Eurasia director, said:  “This practice of socially engaged art threatens Polish politicians, who would clearly prefer to conceal details about the ways in which they are addressing the refugee crisis.”
  • PEN America condemned the arrest of political cartoonist Tawfiq Omrane following the publication of a satirical cartoon mocking Tunisian prime minister, Ahmed Hachani. PEN America called for Omrane’s charges to be immediately dropped.
  • Last week, PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) co-hosted a side-event at the UN Church Center with Race & Equality and PEN International for a panel discussion with Nicaraguan and Cuban human rights activists who discussed the escalating threats encountered by activists trying to carry out their work. Closing remarks were given by ARC Director, Julie Trebault

See previous PEN America updates

PEN America Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of September 18

By: Manal Khan

September 22, 2023

Advocacy, News & Analysis

PEN America works tirelessly to defend free expression, support persecuted writers, and promote literary culture. Here are some of the latest ways PEN America is speaking out.

  • PEN America launched a new report that found book bans across the U.S. increased by 33 percent in the 2022-2023 school year. Banned in the USA: The Mounting Pressure to Censor highlights the disproportionate number of bans occurring in Florida — where over 40 percent of all book bans took place in the 2022-23 school year — and how state legislation and coordinated pressure campaigns from local groups and individuals have driven mass restrictions on access to literature. Since PEN America started tracking public school book bans in July 2021, we have recorded nearly 6,000 instances of banned books. This includes 3,362 book bans affecting 1,557 unique titles during the 2022-23 school year, impacting the work of 1,480 authors, illustrators, and translators. 

Read the Report

See the Index of School Book Bans

The 11 Most Banned Books of the 2022-2023 School Year

         You can also read the media coverage of the report in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, NPR or USA Today.

  • PEN America honored Ms. magazine with its Impact Award, celebrating the pathbreaking feminist publication and its half-a-century of journalism centered on women and their lives “often ignored in the mainstream.” In a room with feminist icon Gloria Steinem, a co-founding editor of Ms., PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said that Ms. has left an indelible mark on the landscape of journalism, activism and women’s rights.”
  • Nossel wrote about the burning of religious books in Denmark as a dangerous threat to freedom of speech but also argued that it shouldn’t be punishable by law. “But while there’s no need to condone book burning and plenty of reasons to condemn it, it shouldn’t be punished by law.”
  • PEN America Freedom to Read Program Director Kasey Meehan condemned the school district vote last week to review The Marietta City’s entire catalog of books for “sexually explicit” content. She said it is an “outrageous policy decision that is sure to lead to censorship. Such a broad directive can produce anxiety and uncertainty among those who have to enforce it, and is exceptionally burdensome on administrators, educators, and librarians.”
  • PEN America welcomed the Congressional resolution bringing attention to the plight of Iranians marking the anniversary of the Iranian protests sparked by the death one year ago of Mahsa (Jina) Amini. In its 2022 Freedom to Write Index, PEN America found that Iran was the largest jailer of women writers in the world.
  • PEN America called for the immediate release of Egyptian poet Galal El-Behairy after his reported attempted suicide behind bars. Justin Shilad, PEN America’s Middle East and North Africa research and advocacy lead, said: “Egyptian authorities must end this cruel and unjust cycle by releasing him immediately and unconditionally. At stake is not only Galal’s fate but also that of other imprisoned writers, as well as Egypt’s cultural life itself.”
  • PEN America strictly condemned the armed Israeli Police for confiscating textbooks from Palestinian students in Jerusalem, Shilad said: “The images of heavily armed Israeli police rifling through children’s school bags searching for any material pertaining to Palestinian identity portray a book banning nightmare, come to life. This practice suggests that Israeli authorities are targeting Palestinian students’ freedom to read, write, and learn. Palestinian students have already faced significant obstacles to access education under military occupation for decades.”
  • PEN America stands with Alice Wong, a disability activist who was asked to make changes to her speech at Boston University. Our free speech experts, and covered the issue in detail, read here.
  • PEN Americ’s Digital Safety Program Assistant, Aashna Agarwal, wrote about the importance of a disinformation defense guideline to arm users to recognize that they’re being manipulated before they have been successfully indoctrinated by the likes of Andrew Tate and his followers on the internet. To learn more about media literacy, you can access PEN America’s Media Literacy Toolkit and the Field Manual against Online Harassment.
  • PEN America Senior Manager for Digital Safety and Free Expression, Jeje Mohamed spoke about the alarming online harassment of a Las Vegas news reporter to the Associated Press. “Online harassment of journalists, particularly women and minorities, is an ongoing problem that hasn’t abated. In a 2020 global study, 73% of women journalists said they had experienced online abuse,” she said.
  • An exhibition co-organized by PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program, Return to Sender: Prison as Censorship, was featured in Hyperallergic focusing on the prison industrial complex’s mechanisms of silencing the incarcerated people by restricting their access to uncensored reading and writing materials.

See previous PEN America updates

PEN America Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of September 11

By: Manal Khan

September 15, 2023

Advocacy, News & Analysis

PEN America works tirelessly to defend free expression, support persecuted writers, and promote literary culture. Here are some of the latest ways PEN America is speaking out.

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith kicked off our fall literary season in conversation with Yaa Gyasi. (Photo: Jasmina Tomic)

 

  • PEN America kicked off our fall season of literary events with a PEN Out Loud conversation between Zadie Smith and Yaa Gyasi to a full room at The Cooper Union.
  • Across town, we had a sold-out opening reception for Return to Sender: Prison as Censorship, an exhibit co-organized by our Prison and Justice Writing Program. The exhibit continues. until Oct. 28.
  • CEO Suzanne Nossel participated in the keynote conversation with Salman Rushdie at the National Constitution Center’s First Amendment Summit. He said the First Amendment was one of the reasons he decided to move to America.

  • After receiving more than 150 applications in the first 24 hours of the fund’s opening, the first round of Screenwriter Emergency Financial Assistance grants will reach early-career screenwriters this week. One grantee told us, “PEN America’s kindness, community, and support is truly appreciated and will help me stay afloat during these trying times.”
  • On the anniversary of the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish woman who died while in police custody following her arrest by Iran’s morality police for alleged improper wearing of the hijab, PEN America called upon the Iranian government to cease its continued persecution of dissident voices. Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America’s director of Writers at Risk said “Writers and artists, alongside thousands of Iranians, have been brutalized by a government whose only goal is to hold onto power and who must be held to account for these crimes and their stifling of free expression and human rights.”
  • PEN America also submitted a report to the United Nations Committee on Civil and Political Rights, criticizing the human rights record of the United States on free expression, discrimination, and privacy. The submission focuses on 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.
  • We worked with Harper’s Bazaar on a feature package on book bans, featuring a scrollable, shoppable list of every book currently banned in the United States.
  • PEN America partnered with the “Alt New College”, which was inaugurated this week as a response to the unprecedented takeover of the New College of Florida (NCF) and resulting limits on academic expression in Florida. Its mission is to bring leading thinkers and educators, including former NCF faculty, to support the academic freedom of students who have been put in the middle of a political crossfire by partisan politicians.  
  • PEN America launched a Free Expression Advocacy Institute and a Freedom to Read Institute with Brooklyn Public Library to train students to champion free expression and combat book bans. Authors Alex Gino, George M. Johnson and Mary Beth Tinker are among the speakers for The Free Expression Advocacy Institute (Sept. 20-Nov. 8) and the Freedom to Read Advocacy Institute (Oct. 19-Nov. 9) this fall.
  • PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program launched an anthology series publishing the 34 winners of the 2023 #PENPrisonWritingAwards! These incarcerated writers have been named winners in five categories: poetry, fiction, nonfiction-essay, nonfiction-memoir, and drama. Order your copy here.
  • PEN America welcomed the U.S. Department of Education’s appointment of a so-called book czar, Matt Nosanchuk, in response to the unprecedented rise of book bans in schools. Nadine Farid Johnson, PEN America’s Washington Director said: “Book removals and restrictions continue apace across the country, as the tactics to silence certain voices and identities are sharpened. Empowering the coordinator to address this ongoing movement is critical.”
  • PEN America, alongside other civil society organizations, called upon the Saudi authorities to overturn teacher Mohammed al-Ghamdi’s conviction, end their vicious assault on free speech, and release all those detained for exercising their fundamental freedoms. We also called on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, to uphold its human rights responsibilities and ensure the safety of its users against state monitoring and surveillance. 
  • PEN America and Tulsa Group hosted a “Freedom to Read” summit for the “Black History Saturdays” series. 
  • PEN America Trustee James Hannaham spoke to a writer in solitary confinement.
  • Our PEN Ten interview series featured our Emerging Voices fellows and Sola Mahfouz and Malaina Kapoor’s Defiant Dreams, the telling account of an Afghan girl who was prevented from attending school under the Taliban.
  • Our interviews of 2023 Dau Prize winners continued with Verity McKay, Annabelle Ulaka, and Jo Saleska.  

See previous PEN America updates

PEN America Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of September 4

By: Manal Khan

September 8, 2023

PEN America works tirelessly to defend free expression, support persecuted writers, and promote literary culture. Here are some of the latest ways PEN America is speaking out.

  • PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel wrote that the cancelation of a JCC book talk is dangerous self-censorship by the Jewish community. Last month, a Florida JCC canceled a book talk by author Rachel Beanland because her novel The House is On Fire, is set amid slavery and deals with themes of racial justice. 
  • PEN America, along with a group of free expression and anti-censorship groups, sent a letter to schools across Florida alerting them to legal filings by the state’s attorney general that the “Don’t Say Gay” law doesn’t apply to school libraries. The Florida Freedom to Read Project, PEN America, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), and We Need Diverse Books called on the Florida Department of Education to issue new guidance explaining that distinction to schools, and asked schools to put books back on shelves. Send a letter.
  • Moira Marquis from PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times to reinforce the importance of reading and writing programs – that are highly censored and policed in the U.S. As a response to “Finding Clarity and Inspiration in Writing, While Incarcerated,” she said: “Prisons and jails actively prevent people from reading and writing much more than they encourage it. Thousands of books are banned in individual states; New York alone has banned 5,356 separate titles.”
  • Nossel spoke to Margaret Sullivan about the hypocrisy of Elon Musk’s free speech ideas. “Musk has declared open season for hate on his platforms,” she said. 
  • PEN America stood against Elon Musk’s threat to sue the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for defamation, claiming their advocacy calling out antisemitism on his platform, X (formerly known as Twitter), has caused significant financial losses.  Kate Ruane, Sy Syms director of the U.S. Free Expression programs said: “Self-appointed ‘free speech-defender’ Elon Musk is seeking to silence one of his strongest and most effective critics because their advocacy was successful. At a minimum, Musk owes ADL an apology and should be grateful to them for trying to make his platform usable for everyone.”
  • Justin Shilad, PEN America’s research and advocacy lead for the Middle East and North Africa region, strongly condemned the imprisonment of Egyptian poet Galal El-Behairy,who started a hunger strike to mark five years since he was detained. “El-Behairy’s continued imprisonment, despite the completion of his sentence and the exhaustion of his pretrial detention limit, show the abuses heaped upon untold numbers of Egyptians for their peaceful expression.”
  • Jeremy Young, Freedom to Learn program director, spoke to The Washington Post about Texas A&M’s plan to replace a lesson on “respect and inclusion,” due to educational censorship laws. “What happens in a state like Texas impacts schools all around the country, even if indirectly. It creates a climate of fear, even in states that aren’t interested in passing laws like this.” 

See previous PEN America updates

PEN America Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of August 28

By: Manal Khan

September 1, 2023

PEN America works tirelessly to defend free expression, support persecuted writers, and promote literary culture. Here are some of the latest ways PEN America is speaking out.

  • PEN America announced a new emergency grant program to help early-career screenwriters during the Writers Guild strike. As it has done during COVID-19, natural disasters, and other emergencies, the new Screenwriters Emergency Assistance Fund will offer short-term grants ranging from $500 to $1,000 to eligible screenwriters on a first come-first served basis.
  • PEN America sharply criticized the “unjust” court verdict in Constantine, Algeria, sentencing scholar and writer Raouf Farrah to two years in prison on Tuesday, and his father Sebti Farrah to a suspended one-year sentence. The free expression organization said the sentence shows the Algerian government is not only silencing its critics but going after their family members as well. 
  • PEN America expert on the MENA region, Justin Shilad wrote about the chilling assault on LGBTQ+ rights and expression through incidents like the video circulating on social media, showing a mob of men surrounding a bar hosting a drag show in Lebanon’s capital Beirut. The men, who were members of the right-wing Christian group “Soldiers of God,” assaulted patrons outside the bar and besieged it for nearly an hour on August 23, forcing the organizers to cancel the show.

  • Sam LaFrance, a Free Expression expert wrote about the harm that the “Don’t Say Gay” law has caused in 2023 yet. Teachers in North Carolina, Arkansas, Iowa, and Indiana are beginning their school years newly stripped of their right to say “gay.” Iowa and Indiana passed similar bills into law in May, and Arkansas passed their copycat law in March. 

  • PEN America condemned the potential closure of a public library in Virginia due to a campaign of baseless claims and conspiracy theories and said that it is “deeply alarming” after a monthslong campaign to remove what an activist group calls “pornographic books.” 
  • PEN America welcomed a judge’s preliminary injunction halting the implementation of HB 900 in Texas, a controversial new law. Kasey Meehan, Freedom to Read program director at PEN America, said: “ This decision is a win for booksellers, publishers, educators, and students in Texas and a signal that the legislature has gone too far in promoting government-mandated censorship.”
  • A new bill in Congress focused on school materials “harmful to minors” instead amounts to an “intimidation tactic” to chill education when no such problem exists, PEN America said today. Laura Schroeder, senior manager of legislative affairs at PEN America, said: “There is no pornography in our public school system, and threatening funding would create a profound chilling effect on material selection across the country.”
  • PEN America condemned the arrest of Iranian musician Mehdi Yarrahi following the release on Friday of his song “Your Head Scarf” which protests the long-standing mandatory hijab rule imposed in the country. PEN America calls for Yarrahi’s immediate release and for all charges to be dropped against him. 
  • PEN America questions The threat by the Blount County, Tennessee, prosecutor to enforce a ban on drag performances at Saturday’s LGBTQ+ pride festival is a “grave threat” to free expression, PEN America said today. A federal judge has ruled the law likely violates the First Amendment “Tennessee’s Adult Entertainment Act poses a grave threat to the free expression of drag artists and LGBTQ+ Tennesseans more broadly. Even further, it is likely unconstitutional—as stated by a federal judge who ruled on the legislation during Pride Month this year,” said Kate Ruane, Sy Syms director of the U.S. Free Expression programs.

  •  The sentencing of retired teacher Mohammed al-Ghamdi to death over his posts on social media in Saudi Arabia is a “horrifying escalation” of an already brutal crackdown on free expression in the kingdom, PEN America said today. Justin Shilad,  at PEN America, said in response: “Saudi Arabia’s sentencing Mohammed al-Ghamdi to death for posting and sharing on social media is a horrifying escalation of an already brutal crackdown on free expression.” 
  • PEN America signed a letter with the Committee to Protect Journalists, calling on Bangladesh to immediately end the harassment and intimidation of journalist Adhora Yeasmean, who faces an investigation under the Digital Security Act (DSA) for her April 29 video report for RTV on the alleged crimes of the religious organization Rajarbagh Darbar Sharif

See previous PEN America updates

PEN America Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of August 21

By: Lisa Tolin

August 25, 2023

PEN America works tirelessly to defend free expression, support persecuted writers, and promote literary culture. Here are some of the latest ways PEN America is speaking out.

  • PEN America launched a report this week, Educational Intimidation: How ‘Parents’ Rights’ Legislation Undermines the Freedom to Learn, documenting the nationwide campaign to restrict instruction about race, sexuality, and gender in public schools.
  • In the report, PEN America found an alarming subset of laws and bills that specifically target LGBTQ+ representation and put pressure on educators to “monitor” and report on students’ gender identity or sexual orientation. 
  • Teachers and librarians told PEN America about the climate of fear these laws have created in their schools.
  •  PEN America condemns the raid and arrest of Egyptian journalist Karim Asaad, during which he and his wife were assaulted in their home, along with the ongoing detention of writer and publisher Hisham Kassem, which casts “serious doubt” on Egypt’s commitment to reform.
  • PEN America condemned the calls to remove a book from a Princeton University syllabus and fire a professor as “highly misguided” and “unwarranted.” The book in question, slated for inclusion in a course called “The Healing Humanities — Decolonizing Trauma Studies from the Global South,” critiques the state of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians. In response, Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s program director for Free Expression and Education, said: “If we scrubbed college campuses of any book that could cause any offense, we would be left with a fairly barren environment for academic inquiry.”
  • Viktorya Vilk, the director for Digital Safety and Free Expression, said “Removing the block button–a critical tool that so many writers, journalists, artists, and other users need to protect themselves from attempts to silence them with hate and harassment” — in response to a thread on Twitter (now known as “X”) from Elon Musk that suggests he may end the platform’s block button. PEN America’s 2021 report No Excuse for Abuse includes a section that specifically highlights blocking as a safety tool to mitigate abuse online. 
  • PEN America called on Daytona State College in Florida to reschedule a photo exhibition by Jon Henry in light of a dispute over why the show was cancelled. PEN America received a letter claiming the show was cancelled because his photographs, referencing police violence, would “call negative attention to the college and conflict with their educational program on training future police officers.” 
  • PEN America was among civil society organizations, independent media outlets, and individuals, join together to stand in solidarity with Egyptian fact-checking and independent media platform Matsadaash, following its recent targeting by Egyptian security services.
  • PEN America was among the organizations strongly condemning the latest incident of judicial harassment against journalist Barış Pehlivan and reiterating calls to the Turkish authorities to respect media freedom.

See previous PEN America updates

PEN America Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of August 14

By: Lisa Tolin

August 18, 2023

PEN America works tirelessly to defend free expression, support persecuted writers, and promote literary culture. Here are some of the latest ways PEN America is speaking out.

 
 
 
 
 
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PEN America Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of August 7

By: Lisa Tolin

August 11, 2023

PEN America works tirelessly to defend free expression, support persecuted writers, and promote literary culture. Here are some of the latest ways PEN America is speaking out.

  • After dozens of interviews and extensive internal debate, this week PEN America published Booklash: Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and the Language of Harm. The report examines cases where publishers or authors voluntarily pulled back books from publication or circulation, and finds that these incidents, although rare, are driven by the same language of harm that has been used to yank books from shelves in Florida and elsewhere. 
  • Summer Lopez discussed book banning at Monadnock Summer LyceumAuthoritarians silence the most vulnerable voices first so that you might get used to it, but it’s highly unlikely to stop there,” she said. “And authoritarians go after books and writers because words and stories are powerful—they allow people to imagine a different, better world. 

  • One year after author Salman Rushdie was severely wounded in a knife attack, PEN America expressed gratitude for his recovery. “He brings a sharply distilled moral clarity to our discourse, an essential contribution in an age of obfuscation and uncertainty.”
  • PEN America sharply criticized approval by the New College of Florida trustees to close the public college’s gender studies department. Jeremy C. Young, Freedom to Learn program director, called it “a repressive act that echoes the actions of a repressive foreign government.”
  • PEN America expressed distress over the decision by Indiana’s Hamilton East Public Library to move more than 1,300 Young Adult books to its adult section. “Teens have books that are written with them in mind; that is precisely what a YA collection is about,” said Free Expression and Education programs director Jonathan Friedman.
  • Justin Shilad, research and advocacy lead for the Middle East and North Africa, said reports that the Israeli government has frozen higher education preparation funding for Palestinian students in Jerusalem “is a further effort to entrench a separate and unequal system of education that deprives Palestinians of their fundamental rights.”
  • Justin Shilad also spoke to Voice of America about how “Barbie” is in the crosshairs of growing censorship in Lebanon. “It’s ridiculous and deadly serious at the same time,” he said.
  • Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager of free expression and education, urged the state of California to allow Stanford University researchers Sean Reardon and Thomas Dee to testify about learning losses during the Covid-19 pandemic after the state’s Department of Education attempted to block their testimony.
  • PEN America raised concern over the growing repression and persecution of writers and intellectuals in Belarus, and called for the reversal of blatant infringements of free expression. “Silencing writers must cease,” said Polina Sadovskaya, PEN America’s Eurasia and advocacy director.
  • PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) posted a profile on Grammo Suspect – Rainbow Ambassador Kenya, who is a rapper making music in support of LGBTQIA+ rights in Kenya.

See previous PEN America updates

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PEN America Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of July 31

By: Lisa Tolin

August 4, 2023

PEN America works tirelessly to defend free expression, support persecuted writers, and promote literary culture. Here are some of the latest ways PEN America is speaking out.

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PEN America Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of July 24

By: Erica Galluscio

July 28, 2023

PEN America works tirelessly to defend free expression, support persecuted writers, and promote literary culture. Here are some of the latest ways PEN America is speaking out.

See previous PEN America updates

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