#100PENMembers No. 90: Jennifer Egan

American novelist Jennifer Egan, the campaigning President of PEN America who sued the President of the United States to defend press freedoms.

Her novel Manhattan Beach won the the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in the Fiction and 2011’s A Visit From the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize. 

When she was elected President in 2018 Egan commented on the increased relevance of PEN’s work: ‘In the Trump presidency, censorship and suppression have proved more alive in America than many of us had believed possible — through the ostracization, ridicule and devaluation of expressed dissent. 

‘PEN America has spent decades defending free expression by calling out the tactics of repressive regimes, and is uniquely equipped to fight these practices not only abroad, but at home. 

‘Our work has never felt more urgent,’ she said.

Soon after she took up her role, PEN American sued the President for attempting to silence and punish journalists and news outlets. Writing for LitHub, Egan said: ‘We believe (along with our legal representatives, Protect Democracy and the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Clinic) the President Trump’s threats and punitive actions infringe upon the First Amendment Rights of our members. Worse, they imperil out free press – one of the cornerstones of a healthy democracy.’

Egan pointed out that whilst Trump’s undermining of trust in media organisations and even endangering journalists – who were subject to death threats and needed bodyguards when covering political rallies – the key point of the case was the use of governmental powers to stymie the press. 

The suit argued that under the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, the President could not use the machinery of government to retaliate or threaten reprisals against journalists and media outlets for coverage he dislikes. It cited action taken to punish the owner of the Washington Post, DOJ enforcement actions against media companies including Time Warner, interference with White House press access, threats to revoke broadcast licenses, revocation of press credentials and security clearance of key correspondents.

PEN America settled the lawsuit in 2021, but kept in place a lower court ruling which set a crucial precedent: officials who use the powers of government to exact reprisals against the press can be held accountable in US courts.

Egan has been an active member in PEN since the 1990s and a board member since 2013.

Her Presidency came about as PEN America merged to form one organisation, amalgamating PEN America with the California-based PEN Center USA. The organisation has offices in New York, Washington and Los Angeles. Egan and Director of PEN American Suzanne Nossel worked through a period of making PEN more policy-driven and more influential in terms of lobbying and governmental relations, backed by Nossel’s State Department experience.

Egan was succeeded in 2020 by the playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar. 

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