New York, New York, April 11, 2008—PEN American Center has named Laura Berg, a Veterans Administration nurse who faced a sedition investigation after writing a letter to the editor of her local paper criticizing the Bush Administration’s handling of the disaster and the Iraq War, as the recipient of this year’s prestigious PEN/Katherine Anne Porter First Amendment Award. Ms. Berg will receive the $10,000 prize at PEN’s Annual Gala on April 28, 2008 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
After witnessing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005, Berg submitted a letter that ran in her local weekly paper The Alibi. Within days, her office computer was seized and the VA began its investigation into possible charges of sedition. Her union representative confirmed that the letter had been sent to the FBI for investigation as well. Sedition under federal law is a plot or conspiracy to use force to overthrow the government, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
When Berg sounded an alarm about the VA’s actions, New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman called on Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson to investigate the VA’s actions and the ACLU of New Mexico began working on her behalf. Berg pressed for a public apology from the VA, and in March 2006, Berg received an admission from a top official that it had been wrong for the agency to accuse her of sedition, plus a private apology from her boss. The admission, which was made public by the ACLU of New Mexico, came in a letter dated March 14, 2006 from Veterans Affairs Secretary R. James Nicholson to Senator Bingaman. While vindicated of the sedition charges, Berg would still like to see a written policy at the VA that clarifies the First Amendment right to freedom of speech for all employees.
In announcing the award today in New York, PEN Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems placed Berg in the great American tradition of citizen editorialists, praising both her determination to express her views in print and courage in the face of the most heavy-handed and overbearing official reaction. “When Laura Berg sat down to write her letter to the editor, she was enacting her most basic constitutional right and affirming our national faith that exercising this right is an act of patriotism and civic engagement. That her letter was greeted instead as a threat to overthrow the government shows just how far we deviated from our national values in the years following 9/11.”
“Berg published her letter in perhaps our darkest hour for freedom of expression,” Siems continued. “Around the same time, members of Congress and the administration were openly encouraging the prosecution of journalists reporting on illegal administration programs under the Espionage Act. While we believe that the pendulum has swung back from that extreme, Berg’s experience is a reminder of how quickly our most basic values can fall victim to exaggerated fears for national security. And her story is a reminder of how much one individual voice can mean in such a time.”
Laura Berg is the first recipient of the new PEN/Katherine Anne Porter First Amendment Award, which is underwritten by the Katherine Anne Porter Foundation in honor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s steadfast support for PEN and the freedom to write. The award, which replaces the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award, honors a United States citizen or resident who has fought courageously to safeguard the First Amendment’s right to freedom of expression as it applies to the written word.
Larry Siems, PEN American Center (212) 334-1660 ext. 105