When Reading the ‘Wrong’ Books May Lead to a Sentence


PEN American Center, the writers’ fellowship that advances literature through its awards, publications, and campaigns, gathers an impressive lineup—Laurie Anderson, Paul Auster, Russell Banks, Michael Cunningham, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, Jonathan Safran Foer, Margo Jefferson, Edward P. Jones, Walter Dean Meyers, Salman Rushdie, Monique Truong, Kurt Vonnegut, and others—for a free reading of their works to promote awareness of Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. Previous legislation had limited review of certain business records to targets “linked to foreign espionage”; Section 215 expands and obscures the scope to “any tangible thing,” including bookstore and library records. Searches could be launched in response to activities protected by the First Amendment. The assertion that these records are needed to combat terrorism would suffice to start an investigation. The FBI’s actions are shrouded in secrecy: Those served with subpoenas can’t publicize that fact, those under surveillance aren’t notified, and an appeal of such orders isn’t possible. In the last two years, the number of writers and journalists on the PEN Freedom to Write Committee’s case list increased by more than 50 percent as other governments point to the U.S. to justify their own repression. PEN encourages imploring elected officials to protect the public’s right to freely explore and express ideas without intimidation.