A recent letter to the editor in Publishers Weekly addresses several important points concerning freedom of speech, the first of which is a clarification of the First Amendment, as it applies to publishing. The First Amendment simply prohibits Congress from passing any law that restricts freedom of speech. It does not guarantee that your speech will be published. That comes under the auspices of free market, not free speech. In short, you can talk, but nobody is obliged to listen, or to give your speech a platform. In addition, there are numerous forms of speech that are not protected under the First Amendment, including lies, libel, slander, incitement to violence, seditious speech, threats, child pornography, fraud, commercial speech, plagiarism, and advocating any criminal behavior.
The second point made in this letter is whether publishing companies have an obligation to consider the harm they do when they publish “violence and vitriol,” while excluding those on the receiving end. This is not necessarily a legal consideration (until their companies are sued) but it is certainly an ethical one. Does the quest for the almighty dollar relieve publishers of responsibility when what they publish leads to persecution, destruction, and death? In fact, that responsibility does rest with publishers. Inciting violence is a felony, and hate speech can be punishable if it results in assaults and murders. So, while publishers may wish to make a profit from thinly veiled white supremacists masquerading as “conservatives,” they may want to consider the implications should those publications be used as justification for violence or insurrection. If and when they are sued, neither the authors nor their publishers will be able to claim “freedom of speech” as a defense.
Elham Ali and Anita Ragunathan | Feb 05, 2021, Publisher’s Weekly
As cultural institutions, publishing houses certainly have a responsibility to document the many faces of society, including the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump. However, the framing of these viewpoints is an even more daunting task. From an innocent pat on the former president’s head by a late-night television host to the publication of a noted transphobic professor, the output of cultural institutions has an impact on the collective consciousness of American society. When the messenger upholds the dehumanization of Black, Indigenous, racialized, LGBT+, and disability communities, their message can and has led to violence against these communities.
For many years, publishers have been quietly profiting off of this violence and vitriol, all the while systematically excluding those on the receiving end from the publishing world. And even in the last decade when strides have been made, largely led by a “new generation” of publishing professionals and smaller indie publishers, to be more inclusive of minority communities both in books and offices, these “controversial” authors have continued to be published under the cloak of “conservative” presses.
The demise of “conservative” publishing is being framed as an issue of liberalism v. conservatism or left v. right. This is not only wrong but dangerous rhetoric. Younger industry members are not calling for the halt to reprints of Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman or the muzzling of Grover Norquist, for a more contemporary example. Conservative houses and imprints like Regnery are responsible for publishing and giving a platform to a particular brand of conservative: far right and inflammatory.
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