No Censors or Book Banning Here: Judy Platt’s Remarks at the 2016 YPG Conference
The First Amendment makes us the freest nation on the face of the earth! I don’t mean just the 45 words contained in the Bill of Rights. When we say that the First Amendment protects freedom of expression we include the remarkable body of law that has been created around those 45 words, carefully drawing the limits that the government can place on speech in a free society and specifically defining the types of speech not protected by the Constitution.
Because publishers have a larger stake than most–our very existence demands an environment that permits and encourages the free exchange of ideas–AAP and the publishing industry it represents have a long and distinguished history of defending freedom of expression, even in instances where publishing and books were not directly involved. AAP has participated as a plaintiff or friend-of- the court, in virtually every important First Amendment free speech case in the second half of the 20th Century and into the first two decades of the 21st.
In this day of no-holds-barred content in film and other media, the idea of banning a book for sexual content seems almost archaic. However, we need to remind ourselves that some of our most basic assumptions with respect to what the First Amendment protects, including sexually explicit speech, are relatively recent developments. Remember that in 1930 Theodore Dreiser’s classic An American Tragedy was held to be “lewd and obscene” and the highest court in Massachusetts upheld the criminal conviction of a bookseller who sold the book. In 1933 Random House successfully sued to be able to import James Joyce’s Ulysses, but Lady Chatterley’s Lover was still banned in the 1950s by the U.S. Postmaster General, and Tropic of Cancer was banned by the U.S. Customs Service and by statute in dozens of states. In the mid-1960s Barney Rosset, CEO of Grove Press, almost bankrupted his publishing house in a legal fight to defend Fanny Hill that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Their victory in that case dealt a stunning blow to the censors; since then, no American court in any final decision has ever held a book to be obscene.
We haven’t always been on the side of the angels. As my friend and colleague Chris Finan points out in his marvelous book From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech In America, in the early years of the 20th Century “Book publishers, authors, librarians and booksellers took pride in their role as purveyors of culture, and many considered it part of their job to protect the public from bad books.” An early president of the American Library Association warned that American literature was being undermined by immigrants “whose standards of propriety are sometimes those of an earlier and grosser age.”
We did see the light, however, and by mid-century publishers were in the forefront of the fight for freedom of thought and speech and among the earliest voices to speak out against the demagoguery and Red-baiting of Senator Joseph McCarthy. In May 1953 a small group of librarians and book publishers met at the Westchester Country Club to talk about what might be done to counter McCarthy-inspired attempts to suffocate free expression and purge America’s libraries at home and at U.S. missions overseas. The result was a statement on The Freedom to Read issued by ALA and the American Book Publishers Council (AAP’s predecessor), and subsequently endorsed by other organizations. I have a framed copy of that statement hanging in my office and it is as relevant today as it was when it was issued more than 60 years ago. The statement concludes by saying: “We realize that the application of these propositions may mean the dissemination of ideas and manners of expression that are repugnant to many persons. We do not state these propositions in the comfortable belief that what people read is unimportant. We believe rather that what people read is deeply important, that ideas can be dangerous, but that the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours.”
I believe that in the wake of the recent national election, our commitment to freedom of expression will be tested as it has never been tested before. Publishers have a special opportunity, and a special obligation, to defend that freedom, not just for those who agree with us but, in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, to defend “freedom for the thought we hate.”
More than half a century has passed since Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451, but I re-read it not too long ago and I was blown away by his prescience. Writing during the dark days of McCarthy, in the shadow of the Nazi book burnings, Bradbury brilliantly described a society seduced into surrendering its humanity by giving up the individual’s right to read what he chooses without the government’s knowledge or interference. We can never forget that Bradbury’s dystopia is predicated upon the absence of all books.
A number of years ago when emotions about 9/11 were still very raw and there seemed a willingness on the part of a majority of Americans to give up some of our freedom in exchange for promises of security, the Advertising Council broadcast a series of public service videos reminding us not to take these freedoms lightly. One of the most disturbing was a 30-second clip set in a library in which a young man presents the librarian with a list of books he cannot locate in the catalogue. She informs him that “these are no longer available” and asks for his name. As his puzzlement turns to fear, he tries to leave, but his path is blocked by two men saying “We just want to ask you a few questions.” A single sentence remains on the screen: “What if America Wasn’t America?”
Let me tell you a story about the power of books. In 1977, during Argentina’s “dirty war,” Jacobo Timerman, editor and publisher of La Opinion, a leading Buenos Aires newspaper, was arrested by the military junta. He was imprisoned for 30 months, but unlike others of “the disappeared,” he was eventually released and sent into exile. AAP’s International Freedom to Publish Committee played an important role in agitating for Timerman’s release, and in the spring of 1981 he came to thank us and to speak about his ordeal. I was there on that sunny, beautiful day, and I will never forget what he said about one particular brutal interrogation concerning the aims and objectives of his small book publishing company. Specializing in contemporary affairs, the book publishing operation could not have been compared in importance to his newspaper, but, in Timerman’s words: “…it became clear from the level of the interrogation, from the importance they gave to it, from its duration, and especially from the verbal violence and the accusations they framed—that they saw in that publishing company an even greater danger, an even greater threat than in the newspaper….The questioner was convinced that the books could become, or that they already were, something more dangerous than an organ of the press that appeared daily….A newspaper may be silenced, confiscated, pressured or won over with threats….but books are written, whether or not they are published at the moment or in the place they are written. They have a secure destiny. A manifest destiny. A lasting existence.” Timerman recalled Argentina’s president, General Roberto Viola saying that they could never release him because the military government would be judged by the book he would surely write. But he was released, and he did write that book. It was called Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, it was published by Knopf in 1981. A searing indictment of Argentina’s dirty war and a landmark in the fight for human rights, the book was chosen by The New York Times as one of the “Books of the Century.” In his review Anthony Lewis called it “… the most gripping and the most important book I have read in a long time…. Not just autobiography, or political analysis, or a victim’s cry in the night, it is all these things.”
Lest you think that all of our free speech fights have been fought, I believe the next four years will be a battleground unlike any we’ve seen, sorely testing our commitment to the First Amendment as a nation and as an industry. We are likely to see changes in the composition of the federal courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court, that may undermine hard-won legal victories and weaken protections we have begun to take for granted. As the executive director of PEN America said in a recent statement: “A few weeks ago our country elected as president a man whose campaign rhetoric and actions evinced unprecedented hostility toward press freedoms and free expression in the United States.”
We can expect attempts to strip away legal protections for journalists, authors and publishers who offend public figures. Currently, First Amendment law sets a very high bar for public figures who sue for defamation. Under New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that is a cornerstone of free press protection, a public figure must prove that the statement in question, even if it is false, was published with “actual malice,” that is that the publisher knew the statement was false or acted with reckless disregard with respect to its truth or falsity. Although he has never won a free-speech related case, the president-elect has filed countless libel suits when he didn’t like what was written about him.
We were involved in one of them. In 2006 Donald Trump sued author Timothy O’Brien and his publisher Warner Books claiming O’Brien defamed him in his book TrumpNation by quoting individuals “with direct knowledge” of his finances that his net worth was substantially less than the “billions” Trump claimed. As part of that lawsuit Trump demanded to know the identity of O’Brien’s sources, notwithstanding the strong protections that state “shield laws” provide for investigative journalists with respect to confidential sources. When a lower state court ordered O’Brien to reveal his sources because the book was “entertainment” and not “news” AAP joined in filing a friend-of-the court brief arguing that books and book authors are fully protected under the state “shield laws.” We won on that point, and the defamation suit was eventually thrown out of court.
I think we can expect to see more and more defamation suits filed against journalists and publishers by individuals with deep pockets, not in the hope of winning so much as bankrupting or harassing their critics. These so-called SLAPP suits (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) are spurious legal actions brought for the sole purpose of silencing or intimidating authors, journalists, whistleblowers and others who speak out on public issues. The best protection against these lawsuits are anti-SLAPP laws that provide for a quick dismissal of cases that arise from constitutionally-protected speech, and for the recovery of fees and other costs involved in defending against a meritless suit. While we still don’t have a federal anti-SLAPP law, there are statutes of varying effectiveness on the books in a number of states. The California anti-SLAPP law is generally considered the model for good legislation. AAP has fought legislative and legal battles to strengthen anti-SLAPP protection on the state level. Enacting strong state laws is going to be our best hope in the near term.
In the Coda to Fahrenheit 451 published in 1979, Ray Bradbury said: “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” A great many of those “lit matches” find their way across my desk at AAP. We are constantly called on to resist outright book banning or attempts to restrict access in classrooms, school libraries and public libraries across the country. As we speak, lit matches are being flung in every part of this country in the name of “protecting” young minds. Every day efforts are underway to remove “offensive” materials from public libraries, from school libraries, and from Advance Placement supplemental reading lists. It’s important to remember that fully one-third of the books selected by the Modern Library as the 100 best novels of the 20th Century, including six of the top ten, have at one time or another been removed or threatened with removal from bookstores, libraries and schools. The Grapes of Wrath was actually burned in public shortly after its publication in 1939, and has remained near the top of the book banners hit list. While arguments might be made for involving parents in the education of their children and perhaps offering an opportunity to choose an alternative reading when something strongly offends their own values, the root of the problem is not that parents want some say in what their own children read. The problem arises when a parent wants to dictate what all children can read.
AAP and its members endorse the principles of intellectual freedom for adults and young people. These include the right to think, speak, read, and access information freely. In the earl 1980s we joined with the American Library Association and the American Booksellers Association to create Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of our right to freedom of choice in what we read. It’s still going strong.
AAP is also a sponsor of the Kids Right to Read Project, an initiative of the National Coalition Against Censorship. Working through KRRP with a host of powerful allies including the American Booksellers for Free Expression, the National Council of Teachers of English, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and other like-minded organizations, we are able to mount strong counter-attacks and to support community activists in censorship fights. Among our recent efforts: success in blocking the removal from school libraries in Chesterfield, Virginia of three critically acclaimed novels: Coe Booth’s Tyrell, Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, and Walter Dean Myers’s Dope Sick; an unsuccessful fight to keep Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle as part of the English curriculum in West Allegheny, PA (although our intervention has inspired students to keep up the effort); and censorship battles in Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and Florida involving Looking for Alaska, The Bluest Eye, This One Summer, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Perhaps my favorite book-banning story involves a move to ban Pat Conroy’s novels The Prince of Tides and Beach Music from Advanced Placement English reading lists in Kanawha County, West Virginia. A group of students came together to oppose the ban and one of them wrote to Conroy asking for help. In response Conroy wrote a letter to the local newspaper that was, and remains, the best defense of the freedom to read that I’ve ever come across. Here is part of what he said:
The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses….I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career….The school board of Charleston, West Virginia has sullied that gift….You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing. Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book banners are invariably idiots; they don’t know how the world works….
In closing I would like to tell a story that I’ve told many times before. It bears repeating: Twenty years ago Ted Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy’s close advisor and speech writer, spoke to a publishers gathering, and his words have stayed with me for two decades. “If I have a single message to deliver to you …it is simply this,” Sorensen said. “The First Amendment is indivisible. It protects the free exercise of religion, the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, and the right to petition the government for a redress of our grievances; but it is not really about five different freedoms. It basically protects one–the freedom of expression. Whether that expression takes the form of words or music or art or symbols, whether that expression is conveyed by speech or prayer or petition, by cable or computer or crowd, by airwaves or printing press, that freedom is indivisible… Where there is no liberty for the dissident or the heretic, there is no liberty for the author or the publisher. I am sure it is not a quirk or a coincidence that, except for a different mark over the letter ‘i’, the Latin word ‘liber’ meant both ‘freedom’ and ‘book’.”