6 May 2008


The United States prides itself on its guarantee of free expression, written into the First Amendment of the Constitution. So it came as a surprise to Laura Berg, a Veterans Administration (VA) nurse in New Mexico, when she was accused of sedition for her letter to the editor of a local paper.

Berg is this year's recipient of the 2008 PEN/Katherine Anne Porter First Amendment Award, which honours a U.S. resident or citizen who has fought courageously to safeguard the freedom to write.

Berg submitted a letter to her local paper "The Alibi" in September 2005 complaining about President Bush's handling of the Hurricane Katrina crisis and the Iraq war. Within days, her office computer was seized and the VA began its investigation into possible charges of sedition, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Six months later, she finally received apologies from the VA and her boss.

"That Laura's letter was greeted as a threat to overthrow the government shows just how far we deviated from our national values in the years following 11 September," says PEN American Center.

Berg received the $10,000 prize at PEN's annual gala on 28 April in New York City.

PEN American Center also honoured Yang Tongyan, a Chinese dissident and member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, who is currently serving a 12-year jail sentence for posting anti-government articles on the Internet. He received this year's PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award of $10,000, made annually to a writer who has been persecuted or jailed in pursuit of freedom of expression.

For details, visit: http://www.pen.org/page.php/prmID/1331
(6 May 2008)