Many groups have claimed that the NSA’s surveillance program is an unconstitutional violation of privacy. But a different type of challenge is growing teeth. Led by civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, more than 20 organizations, with interests ranging from marijuana to guns, are currently suing the federal government. They believe the NSA surveillance program has a chilling effect on speech, thus violating the First Amendment.
It’s difficult to prove this, though. There’s no way to quantify the students who don’t join their college’s “legalize marijuana” club, or the number of Arab-Americans who avoid political topics via email. Absences are murky to measure. But the PEN American Center, a group that defends free expression and human rights, managed to get a sense of its scope. Of the more than 500 writers they surveyed, one in six said they had avoided writing or speaking about a certain topic, and almost one in four reported that they had self-censored via e-mail or on the phone.
In the survey, which was conducted online by the public opinion research firm the FDR Group, writers expressed wariness about researching and writing on national security, the Middle East, the drug wars, liberal organizing like the Occupy movement, and child abuse and child pornography. Sixteen percent of survey respondents said they refrained from conducting Internet searches or visiting websites on topics that may be considered controversial or suspect.
A democratic surveillance state
Writers weren’t afraid that some subversive Googling would bring federal agents to their doorstep, like artists in the former Soviet Union or today’s Saudi Arabia. We aren’t living in a totalitarian surveillance state, the report points out, but rather, a new and democratic kind.
“I think people were afraid that something would put them on a watch list, impede their ability to travel,” Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of the PEN American Center, told America Tonight. “Writers who have an immigration status that gets reviewed periodically on some occasions expressed concern.”
One PEN member described undergoing two special security searches on the U.S.-Mexico border last summer, and discovering that he or she (the respondents were anonymous) was on a government list. The member believes it’s because of an essay he or she wrote about finding a poem on a Libyan Jihad website, and seeing how its message “might be a comfort to jihadists.”
Another survey responder described shelving a book idea after the NSA revelations came out. The writer wanted to research how prepared America was for a nuclear attack during the Cold War, as well as the contingency plans the government had in place. “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?” the writer said. “And are librarians required to report requests for materials about fallout and national emergencies and so on? I don’t know.”
By far the greatest concern, however, was about communicating with sources abroad. Thirty-nine percent reported they thought it was “very likely” that a phone call made to a region of the world known to be hostile to the U.S. would be recorded.
“Some of those precautions remind me of my days as Moscow Bureau Chief of [a major news outlet] under Communism, when to communicate with dissidents and refuseniks we had to avoid substantive phone conversations, meet in person in public, etc.,” said one survey respondent, who identified himself as an author who writes on civil liberties. “It’s not a good feeling to have reporters’ work in your own country’s capital resemble ours in Moscow in the bad old days.”
Freedom makes strange bedfellows
Americans aren’t particularly perturbed by the NSA’s collection of millions of phone records. Half of the U.S. approves of the program, according to a July Pew poll. But most of the time, the question is phrased as one of security versus privacy, and a majority of Americans favor the former.