More than 350 literary workers—agents, editors, publicists, and writers—have signed an open letter demanding Penguin Random House drop publication of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s upcoming book. It should be noted, that there are some legitimate editors on the list, but many signees –-“Leslie” and editorial interns and so on –- are not exactly Nan Talese. And yet, the document, brimming with nonsensical, contradictory, confusingly reasoned claims, is a useful window into the increasingly authoritarian mindset of the cultural American left.
The letter argues that Random House has a duty to stop the publication of ACB’s book to save free speech. “This is not just a book that we disagree with, and we are not calling for censorship,” says the letter, titled “We Dissent.” “We cannot stand idly by while our industry misuses free speech to destroy our rights.” It quotes British leftist David Puttnam, who contends that the media has a duty to “balance freedom of expression with wider moral and social responsibilities.”
That’s the rub, of course: who gets to decide the contours of the “wider moral and social responsibilities” and the “misuses” of free speech? Even if we formed a consensus on those alleged duties, one of the reasons (real) liberals treat speech as a neutral principle is to protect dissent and challenge conventional wisdom. Rationalizing censorship as a means of protecting people from harmful ideas is as old as censorship itself.
Indeed, the letter is predicated on the highly debatable notion that the unfettered ability to terminate the unborn is a “human right,” and that it’s the high court’s responsibility to impose its legality on everyone by fiat despite the issue being unmentioned in the Constitution. You might have heard, but there is a long-running political debate over this issue. Is it part of our “wider moral and social responsibilities” to deny platforms for justices who rule on this issue? It’s not as if Coney Barrett invented the idea that Roe v. Wade was a rickety legal opinion pulled from the ether. And yet, I would find it abhorrent if media gatekeepers were rallying to stop the publication of books written by those who support it.
The signees assure us they “care deeply about freedom of speech” and “are not calling for censorship,” but …
Rather, this is a case where a corporation has privately funded the destruction of human rights with obscene profits. Coney Barrett is free to say as she wishes, but Penguin Random House must decide whether to fund her position at the expense of human rights in order to inflate its bottom line, or to truly stand behind the values it proudly espouses to hold.
Do the signees believe denying Coney Barrett her book will impel the justice to rescind the Dobbs decision or magically make the word “abortion” appear in the Constitution? No, they want to punish her, and those who think like her. You can imagine how people who believe it’s their moral duty to deny a Supreme Court justice a platform will treat people without any clout.
As the signees note, state censorship and private freedom of association are different. Random House doesn’t have to publish anyone. We see the same kind of rationalization from tech companies, who at the behest of a major political party (and sometimes the state), target Americans for wrongthink. In a vibrant “democracy,” private institutions also embrace the virtues of open discourse as a genuine societal good, not merely a legal technicality. Laws protecting free speech will be worth nothing if society turns on the underlying ideals and merits of the idea. Too often, it feels like we’re headed in that direction.