Banned Books: Is U.S. surveillance leading to self censorship?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Banned Books
NSA signs with flowers

NSA headquarters in Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, northeast of Washington D.C.

Banning books is one thing. It’s even more serious to influence what gets written in the first place. Self-censoring by authors was one of the outcomes in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as authors tried to avoid offending anyone. Eventually, books were banned entirely.

But self-censoring couldn’t happen today, right?

In fact, it’s such a serious threat that nearly 30 famous writers just sent a letter to the U.S. Senate urging changes in the way our National Security Administration (NSA) carries out mass surveillance on Americans. The list of top writers includes lots of writers familiar to high school and college students: Don DeLillo, Nikki Giovanni, John Irving, Tony Kushner, and even the writer better known as Lemony Snicket.

In their longer letter, the writers said: “Mass surveillance invades our private thoughts and lives, chilling speech and spreading fear and mistrust throughout a society. Mass surveillance is censorship.” As evidence, the writers cite a 2013 survey by PEN American Center, a branch of PEN International. PEN’s mission is “to protect free expression and to defend writers and journalists who are imprisoned, threatened, persecuted or attacked in the course of their professions.”

Writers are very concerned about government surveillance, much more so than the general public. Over a quarter (28%) say they have “curtailed or avoided social media activities.” About one fourth (24%) say they have “deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations.” And, 16% say they have “avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic.”

One writer said he aborted a book project because he feared his research would attract the attention of surveillance authorities. The topic was “civil defense preparedness during the Cold War.”

Here’s what he said, quoted from the PEN report: “… as a result of recent articles about the NSA, I decided to put the idea aside because, after all, what would be the perception if I Googled ‘nuclear blast,’ ‘bomb shelters,’ ‘radiation’, ‘secret plans,’ ‘weaponry,’ and so on? And are librarians required to report requests for materials about fallout and national emergencies and so on? I don’t know.”

Is self-censoring a price we should be willing to pay if it means more security? Over a third of Americans (36%) in my national surveys agreed with the statement: “I am willing to give up any freedom the government asks me to give up in order to protect this country’s safety.” Half of all Americans disagree, with 14% in the undecided category.

Are you willing to give up any freedom the government asks you if it means better safety and security?

Do you know of any authors who are self-censoring?

Are the concerns expressed in the PEN report overblown or justified?

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