ABFE Free Speech Report

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

The ABFE Free Speech Report is a column by David Grogan, ABA’s director of ABFE, Advocacy & Public Policy. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the American Booksellers Association. Grogan welcomes comments and suggestions at david@bookweb.org.


Censorship is an act born out of fear.

There seems to be a growing trend among users of social media platforms and from many in the media who believe that certain speech should be banned or who protest that certain topics not be published. Unfortunately, those who run social media platforms seem to agree that regulation of speech — at least on their platforms — is necessary.

And while a call for regulated civil discourse that bans hate speech might sound good in theory, if we think the idea through, it is both problematic and troubling. What, for instance, constitutes “hate speech”? And who is the arbiter of this definition? How can it not be subjective, since what is hate speech for you might not be hate speech to another?

It is the slippery slope defined.

It is easy to defend the things we agree with. Obviously. Yet if we are to be true proponents of free expression, we have to go out of our way to protect legal speech that we disagree with and, yes, ideas that we hate. We need to let go of the erroneous notion that to defend someone’s speech somehow constitutes implicit support for what they are saying. If we disagree with an idea, the solution is not to shut down the speaker — which could easily lend credence and import to speech that may not warrant it — but to counter the idea with debate and dialogue. But to spur this dialogue, it is imperative we support the right of everyone to speak freely.

As the past informs us, no society that censors the speech of its citizens ever winds up on the right side of history.

Yet, every day, attempts to hinder or to outright ban our right to free expression continue at an alarming pace in this country and around the globe. And in many ways, it is a death by a thousand paper cuts.

On Facebook the other day, for example, I made an innocuous post and Facebook asked me if the post was hate speech. I soon realized it was doing this with everything I posted and with every post I clicked on. I was not very happy with the feature, as I saw it as yet another way Facebook users could censor people they disagree with or how it might prompt posters to self-censor. I duly complained to Facebook, and within a day, the questions about hate speech disappeared. 

The new feature apparently was rolled out to a select few (lucky me!), according to a Forbes article published on May 1, to see how users would react. And while some liked it, the article noted that author Joel Comm, for one, was not impressed with the feature: “Great. Facebook is already a cesspool of people clinging to their ideas and not really talking to each other. Now when it comes to political speech or anything I don’t like, I can rally the mobs to scream ‘hate speech!’” he posted on Facebook. “If the intent is to curb nastiness on Facebook, I think it will backfire. People will manipulate it beyond brokenness.”

I agree with Comm’s assessment. Without question, Facebook and Google’s regulation of speech on their social media platforms is of concern. Indeed, just last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), ACLU of Northern California, Center for Democracy & Technology, New America’s Open Technology Institute, and a group of academic experts and free expression advocates released the Santa Clara Principles, which call on Facebook, Google, and other social media companies to publicly report how many user posts they take down, provide users with detailed explanations about takedowns, and implement appeals policies to boost accountability.

The three principles urge companies to:

  • Publish the number of posts removed and accounts permanently or temporarily suspended due to violations of their content guidelines;
  • Provide clear notice to all users about what types of content are prohibited, and clear notice to each affected user about the reason for the removal of their content or the suspension of their account; and
  • Provide human review of content removal by someone not involved in the initial decision, and enable users to engage in a meaningful and timely appeals process for any content removals or account suspensions.

Given the many ways in which our right to free expression comes under attack, it is more important than ever to be steadfast and true in our support for the principles of free expression.

With that in mind, here is a look at ABFE’s recent efforts, as well as a look at free speech in the news.

Fighting Attempts to Ban Books in Schools

Under the banner of the Kids’ Right to Read Project, ABFE joined with the National Coalition Against Censorship, the National Council of Teachers of English, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and the Author’s Guild in opposing schools’ or parental attempts to ban certain books:

  • In Idaho, the West Ada District removed Looking for Alaska by John Green from middle school libraries without the formal review required by the district’s board policy. In the letter the groups stressed, “Restricting students’ access to library books before completing a review of educational suitability does not align with First Amendment imperatives.” The groups urged the district to return the novel to the library shelves “while a committee of librarians and educators conducts its review.”
  • In Cody, Wyoming, two books were challenged by a Cody High School parent: David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing and Herbie Brennan’s The Wizard’s Apprentice. The parent filed formal complaints against the books because of their depictions of “witchcraft” and “sexual acts between boys,” labeling the books as “demonic.” In a letter to the high school principal, the groups stated that the parent’s formal complaint “provides no educationally relevant basis for removing the books and rather raises concerns about religion-based viewpoint discrimination. A decision to remove the books because of the complaints would not only endanger the mission of the school library to provide Cody high school students access to diverse literature, it would also undermine students’ constitutional protections.”

Detained Chinese Bookseller: An Update

At the end of March, ABFE  urged the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) to take action on behalf of publisher/bookseller Gui Minhai, a Chinese-born Swedish national who has been detained by Chinese authorities. The Committee responded to ABFE’s letter and stressed that the case is a “priority of the CECC.” The letter noted that Committee Chairman Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Chris Smith have both urged President Trump to raise Gui Minhai’s case, as they had earlier with President Obama. “We continue to support Angela Gui’s advocacy, through social media and meetings with Swedish, British, EU, Thai, and Hong Kong diplomats and government officials,” the letter stated. Angela Gui is Gui Minhai’s daughter.

In addition, the commission has introduced legislation in the House and Senate, “The Hong Kong Human Rights & Democracy Act,” that would sanction Chinese government officials complicit in the abduction of Gui Minhai.

Does DNC’s Lawsuit Against WikiLeaks Threaten Press Freedom?

On April 20, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) filed a lawsuit against the Russian Government and the Trump campaign, alleging that they participated in the plot to hack the committee’s e-mail servers. DNC also is suing WikiLeaks for its role in publishing the hacked materials.

Writing in the Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Trevor Trimm argue that the DNC lawsuit as it pertains to WikiLeaks “poses a grave threat to press freedom. The theory of the suit — that WikiLeaks is liable for damages it caused when it ‘willfully and intentionally disclosed’ the DNC’s communications — would mean that any media outlet that publishes misappropriated documents or e-mails … could be sued by the entity or person about which they are reporting.”

The authors note that it is very common for media outlets to publish or report on materials that are stolen, hacked, or otherwise obtained in violation of the law. They further argue that “some of the most important stories in contemporary journalism have come from media outlets obtaining and publishing materials that were taken without authorization or even in violation of the law.”

The Shameless Plug: Order Your Banned Books Week Kit

ABA is asking its bookstore members to opt-in using this form if they wish to receive a Banned Books Week promotion kit. Stores must submit the form by Thursday, June 7, in order to receive a kit.

Banned Books Week 2018 will be held September 23–29. This year’s theme, “Banning Books Silences Stories,” serves as a reminder that everyone needs to speak out against censorship.

ABA is offering Banned Books Week kits to help bookstores celebrate the freedom to read. These kits will include bookmarks, stickers, counter cards, caution tape, and more.

Banned Books Week kits will be sent to bookstores by request only, and each bookstore branch should fill out a form in order to receive a kit. Supplies are limited and will be fulfilled on a first-come, first-served basis. The kits will be included in the August Red Box. If your store does not participate in the Red Box program, the kit will be shipped via USPS.

Visit ABFE at BookExpo!

Be sure to visit ABFE at BookExpo in New York City. Our booth number is 2862 and we will be sharing our space with Media Coalition and ABFE partner 2020 Vision USA. Also, any bookseller who wishes to make an appointment to talk over any free speech or advocacy issues with ABA should set up an appointment with me by e-mailing david@bookweb.org.