Flyleaf Responds to Free Speech Challenge

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Last week, Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was caught in the middle of a controversy when several members of the community expressed strong opposition to an upcoming event, “Oil, Gas, and Energy Supplies in the Twenty-First Century,” featuring Carl Trowell, the president of WesternGeco, a geophysical services company. The program was part of a series in conjunction with the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill on topics ranging from climate change and conspiracies in American politics, to poverty in America and heath care reform.

The December 7 event had been advertised on the bookstore’s website and was featured in publicity mailings to the media over the previous six months. Before Thanksgiving, however, a Google Alert for Flyleaf Books drew the attention of store co-owner Jamie Fiocco to a blog posting by a group of self-proclaimed eco-warriors, which was titled “Tell Flyleaf Books to Stop Supporting Pro-Fracking Industry Hacks & Cancel Dec. 7th Event.”

In the following days, the store received several irate phone calls from people who opposed the speaker’s right to talk and aggressively asked the store to cancel the event. Rather than give in to the calls, “we kept asking folks to read the actual description of the speaker and the event as it was on our website,” said Fiocco. “But they clearly were taking information from another source.”

While the store was closed for Thanksgiving, the front door was papered with signs that read “Flyleaf Books wants to poison your water? No Fracking Way!” and the bottom line called for a boycott of the store if the event wasn’t cancelled, though someone who liked the store had crossed the latter out.

While dealing with the situation, Fiocco called on Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers for Free Expression. “On the Friday after Thanksgiving, I told him about the situation and what we’d done and he was very helpful,” she said. “Chris made me feel like I was covering the bases plus he gave me some additional pointers in case we got to a picketing situation.”

“Jaime handled the situation beautifully,” Finan told BTW. “It can be very frightening to be the target of a protest. But Jaime recognized that the free speech rights of her customers were at stake. They are the losers if they can’t hear, question, and even debate controversial authors. She refused to be intimidated.”

Finan said ABFFE’s main contribution was to provide Flyleaf with a model statement on author events that explains the important role that book talks play in generating public debate. ABFFE encourages all booksellers to keep the statement handy for emergencies.

Ultimately, Trowell, who had “agreed to speak as a scientist and an individual, and hadn’t really planned to talk too much about ‘fracking,’” cancelled, said Fiocco.

During the controversy, store staff carried on as normally as they could. “It was more an issue of having to deal with the phone calls on the sales floor while trying to help customers, and then some stress involved with how the media would portray the situation,” Fiocco said. To prevent potential backlash from the media, she had asked UNC to provide several free seats for press at the talk, and she offered one to the senior editor of the most aggressively anti-fracking publication she knew.

“I don’t think a lot of our regular customers knew about the issue. If someone brought it up we discussed it with them and they all agreed it was a good opportunity to hear an expert talk,” said Fiocco.

Independent, a local weekly, reported on the Flyleaf’s handling of the controversy and noted that Fiocco, who opposes fracking, supports providing information from all sides so people can make informed decisions. “We were amazed that a lot of well-meaning folks just don’t agree with free speech if they don’t agree with who’s talking,” Fiocco told the paper. And, she noted, one caller “told us that UNC was ‘too big’ to go after so ‘they’ were protesting Flyleaf instead.”

With the controversy behind her, Fiocco said, “All in all, it was a tempest in a teapot but we were concerned it might affect business at this important time of year, although [co-owners] Land Arnold, Sarah Carr, and I all were of the same mind that we absolutely would not cancel the event because it’s our goal to promote discussion and free speech as a member of the community.”