PEN America Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of Jan. 1

By: Lisa Tolin

January 5, 2024

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 Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of December 18

By: Erica Galluscio

December 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 CEO Suzanne Nossel wrote for Time magazine about the dangers of curtailing free speech on campuses to solve the issue of rising antisemitism. “Amid the clamor to address antisemitism, free speech protections must remain recognized as a shield to protect vulnerable minorities rather than a sword to wound them.”
  • PEN America launched an expanded effort, with support from Scholastic, to assist authors whose books have been banned with information, resources, and strategies for digital safety.
  • PEN America’s Florida Director, Katie Blankenship, submitted a comment to the Florida Board of Governors, expressing concerns and urging reconsideration of its policy to implement Senate Bill 266, which could have a chilling effect on speech in universities.
  • PEN America’s Artists at Risk Program condemned the scrutiny of artists for expressing their views on the Israel-Hamas conflict. ARC advocates for protecting spaces where art can be freely displayed and discussed, even amid conflicts and allegations of offense.
  • PEN America Eurasia Director of Free Speech Polina Sadovskaya wrote about the crackdown on free expression in Georgia, within the Ministry of Culture, and calls for EU support to invest in civil society for restoring free speech and human rights.
  • PEN America condemned the Wisconsin Legislature’s tactics that led the University of Wisconsin regents to freeze all diversity, equity and inclusion staffing until 2026. Jeremy C. Young, Freedom to Learn program director at PEN America, said: “Legislators threatening and punishing regents, faculty, and staff to promote the legislature’s ideology serves only one purpose: to create a climate of fear at universities that results in the silencing of ideas on campus.”
  • Author Lisa Fipps interviewed Grace Linn, a 101-year-old, who created a quilt displayed in protest against the Martin County School Board’s ban of 84 books, expressing her opposition to book bans. Watch the video produced by PEN America’s Damarcus Adisa.
  • PEN America supported the 30 global art house film organizations, festivals, and filmmakers who have signed an open letter urging Iranian authorities to drop charges against directors Maryam Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha, who face a trial and travel ban. PEN America has been advocating for the freedom of expression for artists and writers globally, highlighting Iran’s position as one of the leading jailers of writers and female writers on PEN America’s 2022 Freedom to Write Index.
  • PEN America put out a reading list featuring the publications of our members from the year 2023. Order here

 

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

By: Manal Khan

December 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.

  • PEN America announced the election of a new president of the organization, Jennifer Finney Boylan, the celebrated breakthrough author and LGBTQ rights advocate. She succeeds Ayad Akhtar, who will remain on the Board of Directors as vice president.
  • PEN America supported Iranian writer and activist Narges Mohammadi, who received the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize in absentia. PEN America’s CEO, Suzanne Nossel, and Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director of Writers at Risk, attended the Nobel ceremony as guests of the family. Mohammadi, a 2023 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award honoree, serves as a reminder of ongoing human rights challenges, particularly in Iran, where numerous writers face unjust imprisonment.

  • PEN America released a cumulative data summary, “Spineless Shelves,” documenting nearly 6,000 book bans in public schools from July 2021 to June 2023, revealing copycat bans and a “Scarlet Letter” effect, where authors faced increased scrutiny after bans. The report highlights the alarming rise of school book bans across 41 states, with Florida and Texas leading, and emphasizes the disproportionate impact on Black, LGBTQ+ authors and books about race. 
  • PEN’s Annual General Meeting,  Conversation Amid Crisis: Sustaining Dialogue in Divided Times, featured a conversation with award-winning fiction and nonfiction writer Zaina Arafat; journalist and translator Yair Rosenberg; journalist, editor, and cultural critic Judith Shulevitz; writer and former Director of the Arab-Israeli Project at the International Crisis Group Nathan Thrall; and author, lawyer, and equity advocate Kenji Yoshino

  • PEN America filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court in the case of Moody v. NetChoice. LLC challenging Florida’s S.B. 7072– arguing that laws restricting content moderation online are unconstitutional.
  • PEN America’s Kasey Meehan and Laura Schroeder participated in a roundtable discussion hosted by Rep. Ayanna Pressley focused on the wave of book banning happening across the country. They shared about PEN America’s work to document and push back against this educational censorship as well as the urgent need to defend the freedom to read.

  • PEN America condemned the Russian government for putting Masha Gessen, author, journalist, PEN America member, and former Trustee, on a Most Wanted list, apparently as a reprisal against Gessen’s discussion of widely documented, unprovoked atrocities in the Ukrainian town of Bucha.
  • PEN America mourned the killing of renowned Palestinian scholar and writer Refaat Alareer. Alareer was killed on December 7, by an Israeli airstrike in northern Gaza. 
  • PEN America’s Free Expression and Education Director Jonathan Friedman wrote about what the university presidents should have said to Congress regarding book bans and freedom of speech.
  • Friedman responded to the resignation of Liz Magill as the president of the University of Pennsylvania, urging a commitment to balancing robust free speech protections with creating an inclusive environment without inviting external interference from politicians or donors.
  • PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) published a joint letter with 30 organizations in support of Cuban multimedia artist Tania Bruguera and the Hannah Arendt Institute of Artivism (INSTAR), which has experienced harassment from Cuban authorities. 
  • ARC announced the 2023 fellowship cohort of the Center for Ethics and Writing, an initiative with Bard College. The fellowship is a non-residency program providing direct support for one year to five writers and artists whose free expression is threatened due to their socially engaged art.
  • ARC hosted a Latin American regional workshop in Bogotá, Colombia, with 20 women and non-binary artists and activists from across Latin America to discuss present challenges to freedom of expression and create networks of empowerment and collaboration. 
  • Free Speech and education experts Jeremy Young and Samantha LaFrance wrote about an Ohio bill forcing legislators’ own idea of neutrality onto state universities that would gut intellectual freedom in higher education.
  • PEN America announced a series of Emerging Voices Workshops in Los Angeles, beginning in June 2024, supported by the Unlikely Collaborators Foundation, to provide in-person, multi-genre writing workshops for early-career writers traditionally underrepresented in the literary world, aiming to enhance their connections and tools for publication.
  • PEN America said the comments from Florida Education Commissioner Manny Díaz Jr. posted on X, that sociology “has been hijacked by left-wing activists” demonstrate that Florida has enacted an ideologically motivated ban on sociology in general education, undermining both academic freedom and student learning on campus.

 

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

By: Manal Khan

December 8, 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.

  • Amid a crisis of polarization and fragmentation in discourse in the United States over the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, PEN America will use its annual general meeting on Monday, Dec. 11 for a conversation examining the challenge of keeping civil and open dialogue alive. The in-person event will take place from 7-9 p.m. at Scholastic headquarters in Manhattan. There will be a live stream. Register here.
  • PEN America announced a grant to fund its groundbreaking DREAMing Out Loud writing workshops and annual published anthology for young aspiring migrant writers in New York City. Roxanne Coady/R J Julia Booksellers, the Karen Pritzker/Seedlings Foundation, and Atlas Books have teamed up to provide $275,000 to support the program over the next five years. Apply here
  • In response to a Congressional hearing on antisemitism on college campuses, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel emphasized the importance of free speech protections, even for deeply hateful speech like calls for genocide. Nossel called on private universities to align their free speech standards with the First Amendment, urging fair and transparent enforcement of policies against threats and discrimination.
  • Jonathan Friedman, Director of the Free Expression and Education program, wrote about the alarming suspension of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters at three private universities (Brandeis, Columbia, and George Washington) for promoting antisemitism, engaging in threats, and violating campus policies. The article highlights concerns about censorship, unclear policy enforcement, and the negative impact on free expression on campuses.
  • In response to Governor Ron DeSantis denying book bans in Florida, free speech experts at PEN America countered with evidence of 1,406 bans, including 300 acknowledged by the state.
  • PEN America filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court that argues that Florida and Texas laws restricting social media content moderation violate the First Amendment by imposing ideological orthodoxy on public discourse. PEN America emphasizes that upholding these laws could lead to broader attempts to restrict free speech.
  • PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) expressed concern over the summons of writer and art critic Raymar Aguado Hernández by the Cuban National Revolutionary Police. Following the summons, Aguado Hernández reported a patrol car stationed outside his home, serving as a form of surveillance and impeding his freedom of movement. 

  • ARC co-sponsored a film screening of A Revolution on Canvas. Hybrid thriller and documentary, the film blurs the lines between the personal and political by diving into the mystery surrounding the disappearance of more than 100 “treasonous” paintings by Iranian artist Nickzad “Nicky” Nodjoumi – one of Iran’s most revolutionary artists. The film was followed by a Q&A with directors Sara Nodjoumi and Till Schauder. 
  • PEN America expressed concern over two instructors at the University of Arizona who were reinstated after suspension over their remarks about Hamas. Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America said they cannot continue teaching a course, calling it “a fundamental violation of academic freedom” and that their freedom of speech should be ensured for a longer term. 
  • In response to Kash Patel’s threats of retaliation against the media in a potential second Trump administration, Shannon Jankowski, interim Sy Syms director for U.S. Free Expression Programs at PEN America, condemned the actions as a threat to the First Amendment and the free press. 
  • PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program hosted Break Out, an annual community-centered staging of literary works by incarcerated writers. The selection of readings from the anthology was performed by a dynamic cadre of presenters. Besides Coleman and Ryan, there were poet/professor Suzanne Gardinier, poet/advocate José A. Pérez, and writer/activist Mario Finesse Wright. 

  • ARC published an artist profile on Iranian artist Faezeh Zandieh. After relocating to France, Zandieh flourished as she began to uncensor herself and subsequently her artwork. 
  • ARC expressed alarm that Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi had been rearrested less than two weeks after his release on bail. 
  • Alongside the devastating human toll, PEN America expressed deep concern about the destruction of educational and cultural sites in Gaza, including museums, libraries, churches, mosques, cultural centers, and schools, as a result of the Israeli bombardment during the Israel/Hamas war.
  • PEN America joined with members of Congress Maxwell Frost (FL-10), Jamie Raskin (MD-8), and Frederica Wilson (FL-24) for a press conference to mark the introduction of the Fight Book Bans Act. Laura Schroeder, Congressional affairs lead for PEN America, said: “Banning books in schools is not only unpopular; it’s expensive. As school districts around the country divert resources to address widespread efforts to curtail students’ freedom to read, it is once again the students who suffer the most.
  • In this week’s PEN Ten interview, Zahra Hankir speaks to PEN America’s World Voices Festival and Literary Programs Coordinator Sarah Dillard about Eyeliner: A Cultural History.
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PEN America Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of November 27

By: Manal Khan

December 1, 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 twin reports, The Florida Effect and The California Effect, to demonstrate how many of the most meaningful policy decisions affecting freedom of expression are playing out at the state level. The developments illustrate how, with the U.S. Congress largely paralyzed, critical measures affecting free speech are now being designed and implemented at the state level, reshaping public discourse. Policies introduced in the two states are shaping the boundaries of speech on issues from the teaching of history and social media regulation to press freedom and protest rights.
  • PEN America wrote an open letter, signed by hundreds of the world’s most prominent writers, artists, human rights activists, allies, and civil society organizations, calling for the immediate release of jailed Iranian human rights activist and writer Narges Mohammadi before the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, scheduled to be held in Oslo on December 10.
  • PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel was interviewed by NPR about the issue of campus protests over the Israel-Hamas war. She spoke about ensuring free speech and defending against antisemitism and Islamaphobia on campuses. Listen here. 
  • PEN America joined Children’s Defense Fund, Students Engaged in Advancing Texas (SEAT), ACLU of Texas, Texas Freedom Network, EveryLibrary, Texas Freedom to Read Project, and the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) in supporting Texas students defending the freedom to read in response to HB 900. This controversial Texas law requires book vendors to rate books for sexual content before selling them to public schools. 
  • PEN America condemned the removal of all LGBTQ+ books for children from the public library in St. Marys, Kansas. Kasey Meehan, Freedom to Read program director at PEN America, said it was “deeply disturbing for the city government to hold the library’s lease hostage to purge its shelves of LGBTQ+ books.”
  • PEN America announced that its Annual General Meeting on Dec. 11 would focus on Conversation Amid Crisis: Sustaining Dialogue in Divided Times, with a panel of experts, including award-winning fiction and nonfiction writer Zaina Arafat; journalist and translator Yair Rosenberg; journalist, editor, and cultural critic Judith Shulevitz; writer and former Director of the Arab-Israeli Project at the International Crisis Group Nathan Thrall; and author, lawyer, and equity advocate Kenji Yoshino.
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PEN America Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of November 20

By: Manal Khan

November 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 filed an amicus brief in the case of Book People v. Wong, challenging Texas’s HB 900, which requires booksellers to “rate” books sold to public schools for sexual content. “HB 900’s censorious approach to literature in schools is antithetical to fundamental First Amendment values,” said Nadine Farid Johnson, managing director of PEN America’s Washington office. “The bill represents a dangerous attempt on the part of the state to intervene in art and literature, and its chilling effect would severely undermine writers’ creative freedom.”
  • Palestinian poet and essayist Mosab Abu Toha was released from detention by Israel, likely because of public pressure, including from PEN America and publications like The New Yorker magazine, which Mr. Abu Toha has contributed to.
  • For Native American Heritage Month, Manal Khan, Digital Communications Coordinator asked PEN Literary Award winners Oscar Hokeah and Morgan Talty to compile two reading lists that explore the depth and diversity of Native American literature, celebrating the profound contributions of indigenous writers to the literary landscape.
  • PEN America condemned the cancellation of a play at Santa Monica College alongside the Dramatists Guild, the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, and the National Coalition Against Censorship. The play that caused controversy on campus was about an interracial romance between a white male plantation owner and a Black male slave.
  • PEN America joined more than 80 civil society organizations, networks, think tanks, and institutions worldwide united by their commitment to human rights and democracy to endorse a statement calling on the United Nations to appoint a special rapporteur on democracy. The statement stresses the urgency for the UN to actively strengthen human rights and democracy amid a concerning global trend of backsliding. 
  • PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) welcomed the decision by Iran’s Supreme Court to release rapper Toomaj Salehi. Iran’s Supreme Court ordered his release on Friday, November 18, 2023, stating that it had identified “flaws in the original sentence.” 
  • Kristen Shahverdian, PEN America senior manager of Free Expression and Education, and Sam LaFrance, manager of editorial projects for Free Expression and Education, wrote about how campuses can protect free speech and student safety amid the Israel-Hamas war.
  • LaFrance wrote about the topics that teachers are too scared to teach in classrooms the 40 educational gag orders that have been passed in 2021. State legislative and policy efforts to restrict teaching about topics such as race, gender, American history, and LGBTQ+ identities–have been enacted via law or policy.
  • Artists at Risk at PEN condemned Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor, Consuelo Porras, for the profoundly troubling developments in Guatemala, described as reminiscent of a coup d’état”. ARC calls for the liberation of all artists, writers, activists, and others arrested for publicly opposing attempts to invalidate August’s presidential election results.
  • PEN America called Hunter College’s cancellation of a scheduled screening of  the film Israelism “totally antithetical to the principles of free expression.” Directed by Erin Axelman and Sam Eilertsen, the documentary is critical of American Jews’ support of Israel, and of Israeli policy toward Palestinians.
  • Shannon Jankowski, interim Sy Syms Director for U.S. Free Expression Programs, said that X’s choice to file suit in Texas is “arbitrarily choosing a venue that’s known to be conservative, that’s likely to favor Elon Musk and X.”
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PEN America Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of November 13

By: Manal Khan

November 17, 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 CEO Suzanne Nossel addressed the crisis on American campuses amid the Israel-Hamas conflict for the Wall Street Journal, advocating for universities to reassess their role in fostering growth from differences. She highlighted the need to overcome barriers for meaningful student encounters and emphasized a renewed focus on free speech education for debate and respect for diverse viewpoints.
    Nossel also wrote for the CNN that university leaders facing the challenges of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must navigate a delicate balance between upholding free expression, curbing violence and intimidation, and providing equal educational opportunities for all. She was also quoted in an NYT opinion piece highlighting that a university’s primary role should be to create a haven — a safe space — for open debate that emphasizes listening and mutual respect if not agreement. “To be open to both all people and all ideas”.

  • Singer-songwriter and global pop icon P!nk teamed up with PEN America and Florida bookseller Books & Books to give away 2,000 banned books at her concerts in Florida. “Books have held a special joy for me from the time I was a child, and that’s why I am unwilling to stand by and watch while books are banned by schools,” P!nk said. “It’s especially hateful to see authorities take aim at books about race and racism and against LGBTQ authors and those of color. This is why I am supporting PEN America.
    Read: Pink will give away thousands of free books at Miami Sunrise Concerts
  • On the 42nd anniversary of the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, PEN America called for the global release of all writers currently imprisoned as a result of their work. Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of PEN America’s Writers at Risk program said: “Authoritarian governments instinctively fear writers because of their ability to inspire citizens to interrogate the present and dream of a better future.” 
  • PEN America announced the appointment of Katie Blankenship, an experienced advocate and litigator, as its first-ever Florida director. She will lead an accelerated effort amid the crisis of censorship in Florida public schools and efforts to undermine academic freedom, and diversity and inclusion on college campuses.
  • For Native American Heritage Month, acclaimed author Oscar Hokeah, winner of the prestigious 2023 PEN/Hemingway Award, recommended a reading list highlighting the Native American literature that speaks about the realities of indigenous populations in the United States.
  • PEN America hosted a panel at the Texas Book Festival with Roxane Gay and Luis Alberto Urrea, talking about the threats they perceive to free expression in America, moderated by Sabir Sultan
  • PEN America condemned the University of Southern California’s decision to bar Professor John Strauss from teaching on campus for the remainder of the fall 2023 semester as “a shocking overreaction”. Professor Strauss was recorded saying, “Hamas are murderers, that’s all they are. Everyone should be killed, and I hope they all are.”
  • PEN America deplored Marietta School Board’s decision to uphold a ban on Flamer by Mike Curato. Kasey Meehan, director of the Freedom to Read program at PEN America, said: “While two parents were able to ban Flamer, without any transparent processes, an appeal to reinstate the book, signed by over 100 parents, was insufficient to return it to school library shelves. We urge the board to reverse course and commit to reconsideration practices”
  • PEN America condemns the arrest of Russian artist, musician, and author Aleksandra (Sasha) Skochilenko,  who has been sentenced to seven years in prison for “knowingly spreading false information about the Russian Armed Forces.” Polina Sadovskaya, Advocacy and Eurasia Director at PEN America said: “Instead of allowing for open discourse based on facts, authorities revert to spreading misinformation and shutting down all avenues of free expression, including the work of artists and writers like Sasha.”
  • PEN America called on the Israeli government to immediately rescind inflammatory rhetoric and threats against freelance Palestinian photojournalists who supplied news agencies with images of Hamas’ unprecedented and horrific attack on civilians in Israel on October 7. 

  • A PEN Out Loud event with Ahmed Naji and Molly Crabapple celebrated Naji’s new memoir Rotten Evidence, which recounts his experience unjustly imprisoned in Egypt for his writing.

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PEN America Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of November 6

By: Manal Khan

November 10, 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’s new report, America’s Censored Classrooms 2023: Lawmakers Shift Strategies as Resistance Rises found that more educational gag orders became law this year than in 2022, though fewer were introduced, and the form and structure of such laws has changed dramatically. “Censorship advocates have spent years trying to sabotage the teaching of ideas they don’t like, and imposing their own views on our nation’s students,” said PEN America’s Jeremy C. Young, a lead author of the report.
  • PEN America condemned the pulling of 300 book titles in Florida’s Collier Country Public school as a response to a new Florida censorship law that bans sexual content in schools. Kasey Meehan, Freedom to Read program director at PEN America said: “These books appear to be banned with little transparency and process. Once again we see a Florida school district erring on the side of extreme caution while navigating vague legislation.”
  • PEN America expressed deep concern about the arrest of Palestinian author Ahed Tamimi. “Tamimi’s detention on the basis of protected expression cannot be justified.”
  • PEN America criticized Brandeis University for its decision to revoke recognition of Students for Justice in Palestine on its campus, saying it had failed to point to any specific examples of how the chapter had violated the university’s student club policies.
  • PEN America urged a Texas school to reverse the dismissal of a trans student from a lead role in a musical, ‘Oklahoma’. “This is a cruel decision guided by a ‘criteria’ that the district admits is applied unevenly. It is yet another example of threats to free expression for LGBTQ+ students, coming amid a wave of anti-LGBTQ+ book bans and educational gag orders limiting expression in public schools and restricting content on gender identity and sexual orientation.”
  • PEN America expressed concern about the safety of 2023 PEN/Barbey Freedom to write honoree and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, who announced a hunger strike in Iran’s Evin prison to protest the denial of essential medical care for inmates as well as mandatory hijab. Click here to write a letter today in solidarity.
  • As Georgia advances a step closer to European Union membership, PEN America applauded Georgia’s civil society’s unwavering commitment to free expression and human rights. 
  • PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) participated in the ICRRA Conference. ARC’s Asia Regional Representative Manojna Yeluri presented in a case studies and panel discussion, “The role of cultural relations: case studies from around the world.”
  • ARC organized a panel “Ukrainian Music as a Tool for Public Diplomacy and Democracy” at the 2023 WOMEX conference in A Coruña, Spain, chaired by ARC’s Regional Representative for Ukraine, Oleksandra Yakubenko, with Alona Dmukhovska, co-founder of Music Exports Ukraine NGO and Yuriy Gurzhy, musician, songwriter, DJ, and author.
  • Moira Marquis, PEN America Prison, and Justice Writing Senior Manager, spoke about our recent report on prison censorship in an interview with The Guardian
  • PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel advised Meta to “take consequential recommendations more seriously” from its oversight board.
  • ARC signed on to a statement to demand the release of Afghan women Neda Parwani, Zholia Parsi, and Manizha Sediqi, who were forcibly taken by the Taliban in the past month.
  • ARC participated in the Workshop on the Construction of Inter-American Principles on Artistic Freedom of Expression and the Rights of Artists and Cultural Professionals held in Washington D.C.

See previous PEN America updates

PEN America Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of October 30

By: Manal Khan

November 3, 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.

  • This week, PEN America released a new report, Taming Culture in Georgia: Georgian Government Clamps Down on Freedom of Speech and Cultural Expression, documenting a concerted effort by the governing Georgian Dream party to suppress free expression and curb cultural independence in the country. Author Polina Sadovskaya, PEN America’s advocacy and Eurasia director, documents a rapidly escalating strategy of government suppression of free speech and culture. “For many years following the Rose Revolution, Georgia stood as a bastion of democracy in an often volatile region,” said Sadovskaya. “Unfortunately, as global attention shifted toward Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Georgian Dream officials began clamping down on free speech and cultural autonomy, not only in Tbilisi but across the country.” 

  • PEN America’s President, Ayad Akhtar, also supported the report in his essay, suggesting that Georgia is not a lost cause. He said, “The possibility to alter the trajectory is real, to become the truly genuinely independent country based on the rule of law and human rights that most Georgians long for. Our report includes several recommendations for the Georgian government, including proactive implementation of the 12 priorities established by the EU for Georgia’s candidacy and the establishment of independent expert bodies to support cultural freedom and expression principles in the arts.”
  •  PEN America condemned the arrest of 2011 PEN/Freedom To Write Award honoree Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer, and writer, who sustained severe injuries during her re-arrest at Armita Geravand’s funeral in Tehran on October 29. “Nasrin is one of the most prominent and fearless heroines in the struggle for human rights in Iran.  She has withstood over a decade of harassment, imprisonment, and hunger strikes without flinching. We demand Nasrin’s immediate and unconditional release,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel.

  • PEN America is compiling a list of writers, artists, journalists, and thinkers caught in the violence between Israel and Palestine. Some have been killed, some are missing, injured, or otherwise struggling to survive. We are committed to preserving their legacy and amplifying their work, both as a means of honoring them and as a method of fostering connection and communication. 
  • PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Senior Manager of Editorial Projects, along with PLSN coordinators and Manuela Aronofsky, spoke to the Prison  Library Support Network (PLSN) about the plight of librarians who have been resourceful with how they get information to people in prison who have limited means of communicating outside of their facilities and little to no access to a diversity of useful books. 
  • In response to policy changes announced this week by Goodreads to combat ‘review bombing’ on the literary review site, PEN America issued the comment from CEO Suzanne Nossel: “We are gratified that Goodreads has taken steps to implement one of the crucial recommendations in our recent Booklash report, aimed at preventing reviewers who may not even have read a book from waging online campaigns to sink it.  As a prominent platform for book discovery, Goodreads has an obligation to defend the freedom to read and prevent practices on its platform that detract from reasoned literary discourse and pave the way for books to disappear before their authors and ideas even get a hearing.”

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PEN America Speaks: How We Defended and Celebrated Free Expression The Week of October 23

By: Manal Khan

October 27, 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.

  • Our Prison and Justice Writing program released “Reading Between the Bars: An In-Depth Look at Prison Censorship,” which details how prisons in the U.S. censor a staggering quantity of reading material under specious justifications and with virtually no accountability. “Censorship should not be a knee-jerk tactic by authorities to address other prison concerns, such as spurious claims that books are a conduit for drugs. Yet we are witnessing vast amounts of time, effort, and money expended in order to stop people from reading. This censorship must end.”  Moira Marquis, senior manager of PEN America’s Freewrite Project and lead author of the report. 
  • In conjunction with the report, PEN America held an inaugural Prison Banned Books Week and an event in the exhibit “Return to Sender: Prison as Censorship” featuring music by Die Jim Crow Records performing artists. 
  • PEN America decried the decision of the State University System of Florida to shut down all Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters at member institutions. The move was made in consultation with Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose administration alleged that the student group committed a criminal felony offense–material support to a terrorist organization–through its speech, protests, and ‘Day of Resistance’ toolkit. PEN America rejects that allegation.
  • In response to cancellations of book and cultural events, awards, exhibitions, and promotions, both regarding Palestinian writers and artists and on Jewish and Israeli topics and events, PEN America urged the literary and cultural communities to robustly defend the free exchange of ideas. We reject “efforts to hold writers, or indeed any civilians, culpable for the beliefs of a governing authority.”
  • PEN America appreciated Scholastic for discontinuing their ‘separate collection of race and gender books’. PEN America Director of Free Expression and Education program, Jonathan Friedman said, “Scholastic recognized that, as difficult a bind as this pernicious legislation created, the right answer was not to become an accessory to censorship.”
  • PEN America’s Freedom to Read Program Assistant,  Madison Markham, testified on her experience at New College to the United Nations Human Rights Committee for their review of the United States’ commitment to human rights. This followed her participation in a shadow report submitted to the committee on the spread of authoritarianism in Florida through politically motivated infringement of free speech and the intimidation and criminalization of marginalized people and their rights to freedom of expression. PEN America previously 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. 
  • PEN America and UC Irvine co-hosted the first-ever Free Expression Student Summit in Irvine. The half-day program included workshops led by UCI faculty and PEN America staff on a variety of topics related to free expression including international human rights, book bans and educational gag orders, news media literacy, and protest rights in the United States. 

    Polina Sadovskaya introducing a panel with Gary Shteyngart, Mariana Katzarova, Sergei Davidis, and Elena Kostyuchenko.

  • PEN America organized a panel moderated by Gary Shteyngart and featured UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Russian Federation Mariana Katzarova, co-chair of HRC Memorial Sergei Davidis, and exiled Russian journalist Elena Kostyuchenko
  • On October 20, 2023, PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) organized an Experts Meeting on Cultural Rights and Development to build upon and strengthen the cooperation established in 2019 between the civil society partners and the mandate of the Special Rapporteur. The meeting convened a select group of distinguished experts spanning the diverse spectrum of cultural rights, including Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Alexandra Xanthaki.

See previous PEN America updates