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 ethical 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 not to purchase anything espousing those views. And, as writers, we are perfectly free to criticize and oppose them.

From an ethical standpoint, we should.

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.

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.

PictureQuote from Washington Post
Since last week's election, dozens of articles have appeared speculating what a Trump presidency could mean for any number of sectors - the economy, social security, healthcare, technology and the Internet, reproductive rights, foreign relations, and so on.

With the exception of Wall Street, which is already showing its jubilation over the deregulation of financial institutions, most of these articles have ranged from a cautious "we don't really know" to glum. 

How this presidency will affect writers has not been discussed at any great length. However, there are signs that do not bode well.


Trump has essentially declared war on freedom of speech, opening up the possibility of  lawsuits directed at journalists who are critical of his administration (Washington Post). This is not just a violation of First Amendment rights, it is a green light to the potential abuse of power. In a recent article, The Authors Guild issued a strong warning:

 "there is a risk that Trump’s veto power as president could endanger a pending federal free speech bill--the SPEAK FREE Act—from becoming law. This pending legislation, based on similar laws in more than half of our states, would allow federal courts to dismiss unfounded lawsuits filed solely to punish people for speaking out. It just so happens these types of lawsuits (know as “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or SLAPP suits)--and the threat of them—have been a favorite Trump tactic."

As president, Trump would attempt to overturn Supreme Court decisions protecting journalists from harassment lawsuits initiated by public figures. The first of these dates back to the Court’s unanimous 1964 decision in The New York Times v. Sullivan, which allowed free reporting of the Civil Rights movement. Not coincidentally, Trump named the New York Times as one of the newspapers he would sue.


Trump's stance on copyright has not been formalized, but given the Trump campaign's unauthorized use of copyrighted images, and the lawsuits resulting from his breach of copyright law, it would not be a stretch to conclude that reforming copyright law will not be high on Trump's list of priorities. 


Perhaps the most profound blow to writers would come with the elimination of net neutrality. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, net neutrality guarantees equal access to the Internet without favoring some sources over others. If Trump has his way, Internet content would be filtered, and businesses would be able to pay for being prioritized. In short, the net would be reduced to an advertising platform for the wealthiest corporations. That leaves writers hoping to build an online presence in the lurch.


1) WRITE. As writers we have an advantage over people who are not used to expressing themselves in print. The pen, in our hands, is mightier than the sword. We can write articles, communicate with our representatives and the media, and reach the public in ways that are effective and articulate. Above all, DO NOT SHUT UP! Self-censorship is the worst kind of censorship. Speak your mind, honestly and frankly, and without apology.

2) JOIN ORGANIZATIONS THAT DEFEND WRITERS. PEN America and the National Coalition Against Censorship are two long-standing organizations that defend writers and the First Amendment right to free speech. The Authors Guild, which is dedicated to defending the legal rights of authors, particularly regarding copyright, has also stated it will protect authors during the Trump presidency.

3) DONATE TO ORGANIZATIONS THAT DEFEND CIVIL RIGHTS. There are many organizations in the United States dedicated to defending the civil rights of U.S. citizens and residents. Here is a list of Pro-Women, Pro-Immigrant, Pro-Earth, Anti-Bigotry Organizations that need your support. You don't have to give a lot - every little bit helps.

4) PARTICIPATE IN THE ELECTORAL PROCESS. Half of registered voters did not participate in the last election. Democracy is a "use it or lose it" form of government. No matter how discouraged you may feel - don't opt out. Do your research, understand the issues, ignore the hype, and vote.

5) ADVOCATE. Defend those who cannot defend themselves - the disabled, the undocumented, the impoverished. Sign petitions, call your representative, wave signs if you want to. This is the land of liberty, not the land of bullies, hate mongers, and pussy grabbers. Trump has done a good job of normalizing reprehensible behavior; it's up to us to stamp it out.


As writers, editors, and artists we stand together today in solidarity and outrage at the murder of our colleagues at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. This attack on cartoonists, writers, and editors is an attack on free expression worldwide. It is an attempt to terrorize and intimidate all of us in order to inhibit the free flow of ideas.

Peaceful coexistence within diverse communities requires a climate of tolerance and an open exchange of views that includes criticism, humor, and hyperbole. The right to satirize, to question, to expose, to mock, even when offensive to some, is a bulwark of a free society. Today’s bloody retribution for the drawing and publishing of cartoons represents a terrifying challenge to these values of tolerance.

We call upon all governments, religious leaders, and civil society institutions to join us in condemnation of this vicious attack. We ask them to insist that however offensive speech may be to some, it is never a justification for violence.

We call upon responsible authorities and institutions to redouble their efforts to protect those working on the front lines of free expression worldwide who put themselves at personal risk to voice controversial viewpoints.  Today’s effort to silence criticism by murdering the artists and writers who voice it must be met with a far wider movement to defend the right to dissent, which forms the spine of free expression.

Peter Godwin, President, PEN American Center

Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director, PEN American Center

Woody Allen

John Ashbery

Margaret Atwood

Carl Bernstein

T.C. Boyle

Peter Carey

Michael Chabon

Ron Chernow

J.M. Coetzee

Teju Cole

Martha Cooley

Lydia Davis

Junot Díaz

E.L. Doctorow

Jennifer Egan

Louise Erdrich

Richard Ford

Neil Gaiman

William Gass

Masha Gessen

Malcolm Gladwell

Barbara Goldsmith

Daniel Handler

Tom Healy

Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

Paul Karasik

Garrison Keillor

Sam Lipsyte

D.T. Max

Colum McCann

Jay McInerney

Paul Muldoon

John Oakes

Joyce Carol Oates

Orhan Pamuk

Francine Prose

Zia Haider Rahman

Theresa Rebeck

Marilynne Robinson

Salman Rushdie

James Salter

George Saunders

Said Sayrafiezadeh

Simon Schama

Raja Shehadeh

David Simon

Jane Smiley

Andrew Solomon

Art Spiegelman

Rob Spillman

Janne Teller

Fred Tomaselli

Anne Tyler

Ayelet Waldman

Lawrence Weiner

G. Willow Wilson

Lauren Wolchik

Tobias Wolf

... and many more
This post appeared last fall on the Author's Guild site. The investigation, sponsored by the PEN Center, and conducted by the FDR Group makes for some interesting reading.

If journalists are self-censoring with the anticipation that writing about, or even talking about, certain subjects will land them in trouble, then our version of reality is tinted by rose-colored glasses. By not talking about the Middle East or Northern Africa, or military affairs, or certain languages (which ones?) these topics essentially cease to exist.

In many ways, self-censorship is worse than overt institutional censorship. There is nobody to challenge, and nobody to sue, because those who censor themselves have chosen not to exercise their Constitutional right to free speech

If you don't use it, you lose it.

The Big Chill: Authors Avoid Controversial Topics in Wake of NSA Revelations, PEN Survey Says

Author's Guild, November 13, 2013

Fear of government intrusion is influencing how some American authors and journalists do their jobs, causing them to avoid researching, writing about and even privately discussing many of the most newsworthy topics, according to a report by the PEN American Center, Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor:

“Writers reported self-censoring on subjects including military affairs, the Middle East North Africa region, mass incarceration, drug policies, pornography, the Occupy movement, the study of certain languages, and criticism of the U.S. government. The fear of surveillance—and doubt over the way in which the government intends to use the data it gathers—has prompted PEN writers to change their behavior in numerous ways that curtail their freedom of expression and restrict the free flow of information."

The report, based on a survey of PEN members, measured how writers had changed their behavior because they thought the government was monitoring their communications. Among the findings:

• 16% have avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic, 11% have seriously considered it.

• 28% have curtailed or avoided social media activities, 12% have seriously considered it.

• 24% have avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations, 9% have seriously considered it.

• 16% have refrained from conducting Internet researches or visiting websites on topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious, 12% have seriously considered it.

• 13% have taken extra steps to disguise or cover their digital footprints, 11% have seriously considered it.

• 3% have declined opportunities to meet (in person or electronically) people who might be deemed security threats by the government, 4% have seriously considered it.

Conducted in October with the help of research firm FDR Group, the survey tracked the responses of 528 PEN members. Questions touched on the experiences, concerns and attitudes of writers in the wake of revelations about National Security Agency surveillance that began with documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

In follow-up conversations, some writers talked about dropping projects out of fear of becoming surveillance target. Others said they’re already a target:

“‘Selected’ for a special security search returning to the United States from Mexico twice last summer, I learned I was on a U.S. Government list. I was searched for ‘cocaine’ and explosives. I suspect … that I must have been put on the government list because of an essay I wrote … in which I describe finding a poem on a Libyan Jihad site, and ultimately express some sympathy for young men on the other side of the world who are tempted into jihad … one can see how [the poem] might be a comfort to jihadists.”

The survey found 85% are worried about government surveillance of Americans, while 73% say they’ve never been as concerned about privacy rights and freedom of the press as they are now.

Survey results showing a high level of concern about being compelled to reveal sources are especially timely as the Senate considers federal shield law legislation. PEN doesn’t mention the legislation by name, but it does call on on the government to enact limits on surveillance and improve transparency, reforms similar to those found in the Free Flow of Information Act.

One particularly intriguing aspect of the report is how it reveals writers to be much less tolerant of having their communications monitored than Americans overall. Asked their opinion of “the government’s collection of telephone and Internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts,” only 12% of PEN members said they approve, compared with half of respondents in an earlier survey of the general public.

As the PEN report concludes, the cost of government surveillance is largely hidden.

“Part of what makes self-censorship so troubling is the impossibility of knowing precisely what is lost to society because of it. We will never know what books or articles may have been written that would have shaped the world’s thinking on a particular topic if that are not written because potential authors are afraid that their work would invite retribution.

This is just plain inspiring.
A prominent conservative French politician wants to censor the nude picture book, but publishers and booksellers have defended the book by authors Claire Frank and Marc Daniau.

Booksellers bare all to protest censorship attempt of ‘Everybody Gets Naked’ children’s book

By Michael Walsh, New York Daily News, Thursday, February 20, 2014

Book lovers would rather be stripped of their clothes than their right to read freely.

A group of French booksellers and publishers took off their clothes Wednesday to protest conservative politician Jean-François Copé's call to censor a children's book from 2011 called "Everybody Gets Naked" (Tous à Poil), the Local reported.

The storybook shows that everyone takes off their clothes sometimes to calm children's fears about their own bodies, according to authors Claire Franek and Marc Daniau.

They wanted to present real bodies in natural situations "to counter the numerous images of bodies, often undressed, altered by Photoshop or plastic surgery, that are shown in ads or on the covers of magazines," according to Melville House Books.

Read the rest of this article HERE