I lived successively in two ostensibly free countries where self-censorship is prevalent:  Hong Kong, where concern over the authoritarian Big Brother next door drives many journalists to limit or moderate their statements on certain subjects; and Hungary, where an triumphalist and populist government has pushed many opposition voices into resurrecting old Warsaw Pact habits of watching their backs and curbing their tongues. I know from experience that it works. And now it seems the Land of the Free is going the same way. At least according to a survey, “Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor, conducted by the FDR Group on behalf of the PEN American Center.

surveillance“In October 2013, PEN partnered with independent researchers at the FDR Group to conduct a survey of over 520 American writers to better understand the specifc ways in which awareness of far-reaching surveillance programs infuences writers’ thinking, research, and writing,” reads the introduction to the survey. The survey found that 16 percent of its poll “have avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic, and another 11 percent have seriously considered it,” due to awareness of NSA surveillance. More broadly, 28 percent “have curtailed or avoided social media activities, and another 12 percent have seriously considered doing so.”

As well as simply assuming by default that their communications are monitored, the writers contacted are apparently exercising self-censorship through “reluctance to write or speak about certain subjects; reluctance to pursue research about certain subjects; and reluctance to communicate with sources, or with friends abroad, for fear that they will endanger their counterparts by doing so.” The full report goes into considerable detail on the exact responses and actions of writers, and further statistical breakdown on the sample’s opinions.

It is possible that writers as a group are more aware of or sensitive to theses issues than the U.S. public as a whole: the survey found that 66 percent of its poll disapprove of “the government’s collection of telephone and Internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts” and only 12 percent approve; whereas for the U.S. general public, only 44 percent disapprove and 50 percent approve. However, writers are also precisely the group whose freedom of thought and speech is supposed to be most valuable to a society. It is also very possible that writers are being discouraged from researching on terrorism, foreign policy, security issues, or other topics where their contributions might be most valuable in tackling threats to the U.S. There is also no reason to assume that TeleRead’s writer audience are thinking or acting, or being affected, any differently. This presumably is making a direct difference to the writing lives of many of them.

I always assumed that Henry David Thoreau wrote On the Duty of Civil Disobedience on American soil for a reason. (And note that choice of word: Not right, but duty.) He wrote that it is “not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.” Looks like the nation of Thoreau has never had more need of him than now.


  1. My understanding of the US NSA issue is that communications presumed to be private are possibly not. I suppose that everyone, writers included, should be concerned over that. Personally, I never assume privacy in electronic communications.
    However, what one says and writes in public should be a separate matter. There is no presumption of privacy and, thus, no harm is done by NSA snooping. What one says and writes in public is available to all, NSA included.
    If we knew what the NSA was looking for in those private communications and those things coincided with what we intended to speak and talk about, we might be chastened to some degree. We, in fact, don’t know what the NSA is looking for so we cannot worry about any of our intentions to speak or write.
    We did know what Joe McCarthy was looking for in the 50s and that did have a chilling effect. That doesn’t yet seem to be the case today with whatever it is that the NSA is looking to learn.

  2. Not me. I’m a bit like John Hancock signing the Declaration with a big and bold hand to make sure Mad King George III can read it. I believe that the best response to bullying or potential bullying is to make very clear from the start that it won’t work. Often that means you’ll be left alone for more the more easily frightened.

    Beside, spying on the level engaged in by the NSA is going to spot even carefully hidden views–if those views are ones they’re looking for. It’s far better to not cripple yourself and you cause by speaking with a muffled voice.

    My impression of Thoreau is that his protest was more pose than action. I’ll spare you my opinion of most contemporary American journalists, but I was delighted to hear those views stated quite forcefully by an English writer who is one of the hosts of The Debriefer podcast. If you want to follow legal issues connected with writing, you can hardly do better than The Debriefer:


    The one from November 30, 2012, “Lawyers are from Mordor” is of me about my copyright dispute with the Tolkien estate. They tried to bully and lost most badly.

    Of course, being careful does apply when you’re doing research and have sources at risk. Then it’s the safety of insiders that is at threat.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

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