Stand Up for Free Expression and the Money Will Follow: PEN America Girds for Trump

The "war" between Donald Trump and the media took a bizarre turn on Inauguration Day when police arrested six journalists who covered a flash mob riot in Washington, D.C. The tactic wasn't totally unexpected, yet the timing of it—just hours after the swearing-in ceremony—was alarming.

PEN America knew this could happen, and had been girding for restrictions on the press leading up to Day One of the Trump presidency. The immediacy of jailing and charging journalists covering the angry street demonstrators close to the parade route was perplexing, given that the six were doing their jobs, Executive Director Suzanne Nossel of PEN America told the New York Times on Thursday.

"They weren't even in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were in the right place," she said.

Like many nonprofits whose mandates became more urgent with Trump's election, PEN America has seen a major surge in funding in recent weeks. "Shortly after the election, we began to hear from individual donors who wanted to increase their support and get behind what we were doing, existing donors wanting to expand their gifts," Nossel told Inside Philanthropy. "New donors coming forward to say they wanted to support us. We saw a big surge in our year-end online giving... There are more people who are energized to what we are doing." 

Small donors joined the defense effort in a big way, which started in earnest after the November president election results were announced. Online donation to PEN America soared 600 percent over the next eight weeks, generating a $110,000 windfall and adding 900 donors to the fold.

Sensing that the stakes are high for journalistic and literary freedom, several funders doubled down with five-figure gifts that PEN America is using to open an office in Washington, D.C., where it will advocate for a hands-off policy on the press and writers by the Trump-Pence White House. Like the six journalists now charged with felony rioting, D.C. is the place, and this is the right time to establish a presence for PEN America. 

PEN's mission is "is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible." In quieter times, much of its work is focused on book and writer events, including the World Voices Festival each spring in NYC. But PEN has a long tradition of wading into controversy to defend embattled writers, along with free expression more broadly. The ascendancy of Trump has set off alarm bells at the organization and already raised its visibility nationally. 

"Our work is more salient now.” Nossel said. "The fear that these incoming officials aren't going to show respect for the press, aren't going to be forthright in their communications, are going to exclude certain voices from deliberations. There are real worries.”

Nossel is well equipped to lead PEN America in turbulent times. She was a deputy assistant secretary of state in Obama's State Department and has held high-level jobs at Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, PEN has a reasonably deep bench of funders, many of which have supported the group's diverse range of programs for years. 

By far the biggest supporter of PEN America's community-based events is the Kaplen Foundation of New Jersey. Its backing of the arts has included nearly $2.6 million for PEN over the past decade.

Corporate sponsors Google, Amazon and Facebook put words into action, with contributions of cash for general purposes. To wit, the group in mid-November launched a Daily Alert on Rights and Expressions, or DARE with links to news reports about the Trump transition. The almost-daily email has focused on how the president's plans to fulfill several campaign promises could erode press and public access to the White House. The website also lists foreign writers and artists being held in jail and prosecuted for their reporting. 

Literary awards handed out at the group's annual gala are made possible by funding by benefactors Annette Tapert and Joseph Allen (Award for Literary Service), Toni and James Goodale (Freedom of Expression Courage Award), and Pamela and Peter Barbey (Freedom to Write Award.)

The Doris Duke Foundation, through its Islamic Arts Building Bridges Program, has given $225,000 toward a "Writing While Muslim" project that gives writers a platform to represents themselves and their cultural nuances, and to challenge stereotypes of what it's like being a Muslim-American today living under a shadow of suspicion that began on 9/11 and intensified by shootings in San Bernardino and at the Fort Lauderdale Airport, both carried out by Muslims swearing allegiance to ISIS.

Over the year, PEN America has also gotten five-figure grants from Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust, Ford, Robert Sterling Clark, Booth Ferris, and the Andrew Mellon and Horace Goldsmith foundations.

New recent pledges of support have come from the Seedling, Fritt Ord, and Sy Syms Family foundations, as well as the Open Society Foundations—all intent on helping resist any suppression of writers, nonfiction and fiction, U.S. and foreign, through government channels.

The foundation created in honor of longtime Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herb Block is also backing PEN with a sizable gift. Created after his death in 2001, the $49-million fund commits to D.C. and Virginia projects that defend basic freedoms guaranteed to all Americans.

It's a good bet that this flow of grant dollars will increase, with a number of foundations girding for battle with the Trump administration. As we've reported, the perceived threat to the First Amendment and freedom of the press has already boosted the fundraising of various nonprofits that work in this space, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists.

PEN and its supporters find it sad that D.C. police rounded up journalists on the president’s first day in office. They saw it coming; they just didn't expect it right away. Many figured it would take weeks or months for press hostility to manifest in the Trump administration through policy decisions and its Cabinet nominees. PEN and the Committee to Protect Journalists is calling for D.C. authorities to drop the felony charges filed against the six reporters.