Why the First Amendment is Important for Publishers

John Sargent's 2017 PEN Publisher Honoree's Acceptance Speech

April 27, 2017  By John Sargent

For those of us who have to make significant​ decisions on First Amendment issues, ​our choices​ are, by necessity, personal. There is little guidance, and the obligation to follow the amendment is only moral, ​there is no law that binds us​. ​As publishing becomes more consolidated, and the retailing of books becomes more consolidated, there are fewer and fewer of us who decide what books get wide distribution in America. ​And the decision​s​​ of what to publish, or ​not publish, ​or​ ​very occasionally what book to pull, we make as ​individuals​—each one of us distinct from the other.

I come from ​a family of ​book publishers and booksellers, but I grew up on ​a cattle​ ranch​, one​ ​small dot of ​blue in the vast sea of red that is the ​R​ocky ​M​ountain west. W​h​e​re I grew up we​ had no TV, and the single radio station played the Star Spangled Banner every day at noon. ​I​ ​rooted for hard-working​ Smokin’ Joe Frazier ​to ​beat ​the gifted ​​Muhammed ​Ali, and as Vietnam raged the only question ​I struggled with was​,​ should I join the Army or the Marines. I admired self reliance. I admired loyalty. And I admired courage.

​In my late thirties​ I was offered the job of running St. Martin’s Press. I remember thinking about the First Amendment responsibilities that came with the job.​ I recalled how demoraliz​ed​ I​’d been​ at​ Simon and Schuster​ when the corporate guys​ pulled American Psycho​;​ and ​I remembered ​the great respect I felt when Salman Rushdie and Viking Penguin ​withstood the onslaught over​ ​The ​Satanic Verses.​ ​Intellectually, ​I considered the possibility of prison or ​worse​.​ ​So I got ​myself ​a copy of the First Amendment, ​a copy that still​ sits in my desk drawer today. Oddly, the words are not very helpful. The bit on freedom of speech and the press goes like this:

Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.

That’s it.

It ​is a mandate to congress, but imposes no legal obligations on publishers, writers or journalists.​ It doesn’t even define freedom of speech, it simply says congress can’t abridge it. ​

​It was o​nly in the early 1800s ​that​ the Supreme Court decide​d​ it would be up to the courts to interpret the ​constitution.​ ​Then, in the case of an anti-draft document circulated in World War I​, ​the court​, in the defense of a Socialist, ​defined the “clear and present danger” standard​ for free speech​. ​In a KKK case in 1969, it refined the standard. ​The court found that speech should be protected unless “advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action.” The court also held that it is unconstitutional to impose a “hecklers veto.” To quote the New York Times “the Supreme Court concluded that the government’s responsibility in these circumstances is to control those who threaten violence, rather than to sacrifice the speaker’s First Amendment rights.” ​O​r as Justice Brandeis wrote, “Those who won our independence” were committed to the principle “that the fitting remedy for evil coun​s​els are good ones.”​

We stand now in a difficult moment. There is a new generation with different sensibilities​.​ There is both heightened sensitivity and heightened bellicosity. Even ​after​ the famed Skokie decision​ that allowed Nazi’s to march​, there is a feeling that any form of hate should not be published and that authors who offend ​our common standards of decency ​should not be offered a platform. There is a steady drumbeat ​asserting ​that lines should be drawn, that the rising incivility from one side or the other should not be given a megaphone.

I see this argument and emotionally I agree with it. The last thing I want to do is empower those who would tear down their opponents with deplorable language and behavior; particularly if those they are tearing down share my point of view.

But unfortunately the very act of drawing a line, and making that decision, runs counter to our ​obligation to defend ​free speech. It also runs afoul of the belief that in a free society it is always better to expose than ​to ​censure.

We have no responsibility to publish any ​single ​book. It is easy and fulfilling to publish books that ​bolster​ our​ own​ beliefs. It is also easy to say ​that ​anyone can self publish a book ​these days​, so we don’t have to worry that their views ​will reach ​the public​. ​Someone else will take care of that. It is easy to feel safe and to be safe.​ ​

But as we face these decisions, I hope we w​ill decide to ​stand for what is right, not for what is easy. I hope​ ​we will apply the principles of the First Amendment and ​have ​the ​courage ​​to resist​ the great power of polarized opinion​. I hope we are brave and I​ hope to be brave​. Oleg Sentsov who we honor tonight​ has certainly shown the way, as has PEN in the work they do every day, of every year.


John Sargent
John Sargent
John Sargent is the CEO of Macmillan.

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