Thursday, January 12, 2017

Free Speech vs Free Market

When Chicago Review of Books editor Adam Morgan made the decision that he would refuse to review any Simon & Schuster titles for 2017, he was kicking the proverbial hornet's nest. What resulted was a string of abuse, profanity, and even death threats. 

Why on earth should the rank and file care what goes on in the literary world? Especially given the fact that the vast majority of the people hurling expletives at Morgan had never read - or even heard of - his publication.

The answer is that a Simon & Schuster imprint, Threshold,  has offered a $250,000 advance to Milo Yiannopoulos, a notorious right-wing "troll" and editor of Breitbart Tech, for his book, Dangerous. Yiannopoulos has made his fame with outrageous racist, misogynist statements that are so beyond the pale that young white men (his main audience) eventually decided that he was "cool." (Not so Twitter, which banned Yiannopoulos for hate speech after his racist tirade against Ghostbusters actress, Leslie Jones.)

In his refusal to review Dangerous, and in his boycott of S&S titles, Morgan incurred the wrath of "alt-right" (aka white supremacist) Yiannopoulos fans who, among other things, accused Morgan of denying free speech. But Morgan claims that refusing to review a book has nothing to do with free speech, because Yiannopoulos has not been in any way prevented from expressing his views. Nor has S&S been prevented from publishing their books. Morgan is simply refusing to promote them.

What is Freedom of Speech?

Interestingly, many people don't know what freedom of speech actually means. Most assume that it is the right to say whatever they please. Actually, the First Amendment only guarantees that federal laws (and, by extension, state laws) will not be passed inhibiting the expression of individuals or the press.

This is the amendment in full:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
As you can see, the statement is fairly open-ended, which means that courts have had their hands full interpreting what "freedom of speech" actually entails. And in some cases, while the federal ban on passing laws restricting free speech has been upheld, laws have been amended to include civil and criminal infractions. Here are the main speech infractions that can land a person in court.

1) Slander. Any spoken statement that defames someone's character or spreads false or malicious information, especially when it results in financial loss or some other tangible harm, is slander. Slander is a civil offense, which means it can result in a lawsuit.

2) Libel. While there are no federal laws covering libel, anyone who knowingly publishes false statements that damage a person's reputation can be sued in civil court. Parody does not constitute libel, and there has to be an element of "malice" involved.

3) Hate speech. Speech that incites hatred against a specific group is prohibited by many local codes and statutes. Although hate speech is not curtailed under the First Amendment, if the content of the hate speech includes incitement of actions that are illegal, and which result in imminent danger or threat to people or property, it is not protected.

4) Violent threats. Threats can be considered assault if directed against an individual. Threatening the President of the United States is a class E felony under United States Code Title 18, Section 871.

Free Speech vs Free Market

So, where does this leave Simon & Schuster and Adam Morgan? Morgan is absolutely correct when he states that a refusal to review a book is not an inhibition of free speech. The First Amendment does not state that a person has a right to be published in any medium (as writers, we all know that publishers aren't obliged to publish what we send them), or that it must be advertised (through reviews or paid ads), or sold.

The bookstores that have refused to carry Yiannopoulos' book are likewise not infringing on free speech, because there is no law requiring that books - of any kind - must be sold. The First Amendment only has bearing on whether a person can be punished via legal means for expressing an opinion. Once that opinion has been expressed, anyone may feel free to endorse or ignore it.

Why is this important?

The Yiannopoulos case is important for writers because it demonstrates how law and ethics collide. There is nothing illegal about publishing right-wing hatred of minorities and religious groups, and, conversely, there is nothing illegal about refusing to publicize or market it. Neither one has any bearing on free speech, or on the Constitution. However, the maelstrom surrounding Simon & Schuster's decision raises some questions for writers. Do publishers have an obligation to turn down books that are repugnant? Do writers need to watch what they say?

The answer to both of those questions is no. Although we live in a time in which hate speech, racist attitudes, and overt misogyny are becoming normalized, we should not, as writers, call for restrictions on what people can write or publish, because that is a double-edged sword. Those restrictions would inevitably come back to haunt us. However, as consumers, we have the perfect right to criticize publishers for profiting from those views, and we can certainly refuse to purchase anything they publish. And as writers, we are perfectly free to criticize and oppose views which are racist, mysogynist, and which promulgate hatred.

From an ethical standpoint, we should.

Update: In yet another twist, Yiannopoulos' book was canceled by S&S after a conservative Republican blog, The Reagan Battalion, released a tape in which Yiannopoulos condoned sex between older men and young teen boys. Ultimately, it wasn't his trolling that did him in, but his support for something universally shunned. Pedophilia is not regarded by anyone as a challenge to "political correctness." Was S&S within its rights to cancel the contract? Of course. Were they infringing on Milo's right to free speech. Absolutely not.

Milo Yiannopoulos' controversial book is canceled

Informative articles:

Provocateur or Punk? How publishing houses weigh tricky ethical and commercial decisions like giving Milo Yiannopoulos a book deal. (Slate)

Publishing Milo Yiannopoulos’ book is wrong. My magazine is fighting back Adam Morgan announces that his publication will not be reviewing Yiannopoulos' book.

Why the Milo Yiannopoulos Book Deal Tarnishes the Publishing Industry the editorial director of FSG Books for Young Readers explains that when a major publisher "legitimizes old-fashioned hate and lies rebranded as alternative, our authors lose, our books lose, and our country loses."

The Booksmith Boycotts Alt-Right Memoir, Takes Financial Aim At Publisher The Booksmith announces it will not sell Yiannopoulos' book, or any other book published by Threshold, and that it intends to cut back on orders of all Simon & Schuster publications.

Milo Yiannopoulos Book May Not Be Coming To a Store Near You Many independent booksellers are planning not to stock Yiannopoulos' book.

Free Speech Groups Defend S&S Yiannopoulos Deal The American Booksellers Association, Association of American Publishers, Authors Guild, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, National Coalition Against Censorship, Freedom to Read Foundation, Index on Censorship, and the National Council of Teachers of English release a statement that, while supporting the right to boycott a book or company for any reason, argues that to do so risks "undermin[ing] intellectual freedom."

Milo Yiannopoulos' book deal is publishing business as usual An LA Times article explores the financial decisions behind publishing controversial books.

S&S Children's Authors Protest Yiannopoulos Deal More than 160 children's book authors and illustrators have signed a letter to S&S CEO and president Carolyn Reidy protesting the deal.


  1. Good, thought-provoking article here. My local paper is so useless. I had not heard this. You do a great job on the main points of this issue, Erica. One thing that comes to mind for me is implicit here: Why would Simon & Schuster do something like this? They have a reputation to uphold, as any legacy publishing house does. You note the "free market" in a sub-head, but don't go all the way in. The answer, of course, is money and profits. This is the same mentality that Trump was counting on to get all the coverage he got during the campaign. And it continues insidiously now in every newspaper and news broadcast everywhere. I don't blame the media for the success of the alt-right and the politics of hate, but there's no doubt many companies are falling into a very dangerous trap. And the effect continues to be normalizing extreme and heartless points of view. None of this is going to end well.

  2. I strongly disagree that all publishers do not have an ethical obligation to turn down bigoted writing. There are a lot of reasons a publishing house turns down a manuscript: poor quality and poor fit among them. If a publishing house professes to have a code of ethics (granted, not all have to), they could very easily turn down a manuscript like Yiannopoulos'.

    Especially now, we all -- regardless of industry -- have an obligation of radical care and moral responsibility towards each other. Giving a person like Yiannapoulos a known and respected brand to house his book confers him legitimacy that he does not deserve. A major player in the publishing industry has failed to meet a bar of moral responsibility. Who do we think will behave in a less cowardly way?

  3. I am sad to say it, but publishers don't have much in the way of ethics. Publishing is, as one publisher put it, "a dirty business." In this case, S&S saw a way to make a profit, and they went for it. (Other publishers, to their credit, turned down Yiannapoulos.) What is most disturbing is that the book will be printed under S&S's "conservative" imprint. When did "conservative" become synonymous with white supremacist? Will this open the door to yet more racist, hate-filled books under the guise of "conservatism"?

  4. Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to There is no fee; I'm simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and I enjoyed reading your work. I'll be sure to give you complete credigt as the author. If "OK" please let me know via email.



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