A survey by the writers’ organization PEN American Center has found that a large majority of its members are deeply concerned about recent revelations regarding the extent of government surveillance of email and phone records, with more than a quarter saying that they have avoided, or are seriously considering avoiding, controversial topics in their work.
The findings show that writers consider freedom of expression under threat in the United States, with 73 percent of respondents saying they have “never been as worried about privacy rights and freedom of the press as they are today.” The survey, to be released on Monday night, was conducted online with 528 PEN members from a membership of more than 6,000 fiction and nonfiction writers, editors, translators and agents.
Smaller percentages of those surveyed described already changing their day-to-day behavior: 28 percent said they had “curtailed or avoided activities on social media,” with another 12 percent saying they had seriously considered doing it; similar percentages said they had steered clear of certain topics in phone calls or email (24 percent had done so; 9 percent had seriously considered it).
Sixteen percent reported that they had avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic, with another 11 percent saying that they had seriously considered doing so.
In total, the results offer “signs of a chilling effect” from the details disclosed by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden, said the PEN American Center’s executive director, Suzanne Nossel. “Writers are kind of the canary in the coal mine in that they depend on free expression for their craft and livelihood,” she said.
The survey took pains to test that premise, asking the same question that appeared in surveys by the Pew Research Center of the public’s attitude toward the surveillance revelations. Among writers, 66 percent said they disapproved of “the government’s collection of telephone and Internet data as part of antiterrorism efforts,” compared with 44 percent of the general public.
The survey, conducted in October by the FDR Group, does not necessarily reflect the views of all writers in the United States. Members of PEN without an email address and those who do not regularly check their email are not represented. One PEN member, the literary biographer Charles J. Shields, said he was among the 16 percent who avoided a specific writing topic — in his case, the history of civil defense in the United States, with its talk of mass casualties and “dirty bombs” — fearing their research would set off alarms.