Free Speech Still a Thing at Indie Bookstores

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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.


You can always count on independent bookstores.

Distressingly, every day my e-mail inbox is filled to the brim with stories on attempts to censor. The attacks on speech come from government; they come from the left, and they come from the right; they happen at bookstores, schools, libraries. It all leaves me sometimes wondering if most people think the First Amendment means, “Free speech for me, but not for thee.”

Which leads me to booksellers and their stores. Amidst all of this, independent bookstores remain a bastion of free expression and diversity, a fact that, were it ever in doubt, became very clear at a panel I moderated at the New England Independent Booksellers Association’s fall trade show, “Bookstores and Political Activism in the Current Climate.”

Essentially, the panel focused on bookstore ownership and politics and how the two mesh in this divisive political clime. The bookseller panelists discussed how bookstores can express their own political beliefs, while making it understood to the communities they serve that there is a place for all viewpoints within the store. The panel featured booksellers Dan Chartrand, of Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, New Hampshire; Gibran Graham, The Briar Patch, Bangor, Maine; and Nancy Braus of Everyone’s Books in Brattleboro, Vermont.

While most of the booksellers who spoke were progressive in their politics, a prevailing concern they voiced was how to ensure that they could express their opinions without shutting out their right-wing customers. There was clearly a desire among the booksellers to keep their stores a safe space for free expression.

Stores certainly have a right to sell any book they want, while at the same time, they have a right to not carry books they do not want, and this includes books by authors or political pundits with whom they vehemently, or even mildly, disagree. But the clear support among attendees for protecting the free expression rights of those with whom they disagree (to the extent that square-footage would allow) was, for me, extremely heartening. And while this support was expected, nonetheless it was certainly good to get affirmation that, as free expression is under threat elsewhere, it is still considered a fundamental right at independent bookstores.

But getting back to censorship…

Lee County School District Removes City of Thieves

Last week, the National Coalition Against Censorship’s Kids’ Right to Read Project (KRRP), which includes the American Booksellers for Free Expression, wrote to the superintendent of the Lee County School District in Fort Meyers, Florida, regarding the removal of a book from a Fort Meyers High School 10th grade English class without review.

The title in question — City of Thieves by David Benioff (Penguin Books) — was one of eight books assigned to the 10th grade curriculum until a parent requested that it be removed due to explicit language, according to media reports. When the book was assigned, parents and students were given the opportunity to request alternative assignments, and while some students opted out of reading the title, one parent complained to the school district instead. At this point, the school superintendent, Dr. Gregory K. Adkins, contacted school officials and asked them to remove the book from the curriculum. 

In its letter to the superintendent, KRRP stressed: “[T]he premature removal of the book from the classroom without prior review violates your own policy and raises First Amendment concerns.” The letter noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “school officials risk violating students’ First Amendment rights when they remove books on the basis of viewpoint or impose restrictions on instructional materials that are not ‘reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.’”

KRRP concluded by urging the superintendent to return City of Thieves to the 10th grade curriculum while an ad hoc committee of educators examines its academic merits.

Duquesne University Holds Conference on Free Speech

On Sunday, October 21, and Monday, October, 22, Duquesne University held a National Conference on the First Amendment, which looked at the critical importance of the First Amendment in a free and democratic society. On the conference website, the organizers noted they hoped the event would “open a dialogue with Americans about the First Amendment and its central role in maintaining the viability of our democratic institutions and to help diverse audiences recognize that we, as Americans, still share foundational values.”

The event’s featured speakers included Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum; and Nadine Strossen, John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law at New York Law School, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and author of Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship (Oxford University Press).

At the conference, Strossen discussed what could be done about the chilling of free speech online, reported the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Those who complain about too much hate speech have been heard,” Strossen said. “Those of us who would complain about not enough free speech have not yet raised our voices enough. So, I would say please remember and exercise what I would think is your most important right, and that is the right not to remain silent.”

Regarding whether social media and technology are the reason for our polarized country, Jason Willick, an assistant editorial features editor for the Wall Street Journal, contended that the biases of the heads of social media platforms are only furthering an already existing divide, the Post-Gazette reported. “I think Silicon Valley is probably making polarization worse,” he said. “There is a lot of distrust among conservatives about whether Silicon Valley is treating them fairly.”

However, Diana Burly, professor of human and organizational learning at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and director of the Institute for Information Infrastructure Protection, argued that you cannot place the blame on social media and technology. “We were already polarized,” she said.

Banned Books Week Wrap

I wish to express my thanks to the hundreds of booksellers who participated in Banned Books Week this past September, bringing light to the many ways in which books are still censored in this country. By all accounts it was a great success. That said, as booksellers know all too well, calling attention to censorship is a year-round effort! And another big Thank You to the sponsors of Banned Books Week, which, along with ABA, include the American Library Association; the Association of University Presses; the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund; the Freedom to Read Foundation; the Index to Censorship; the National Coalition Against Censorship; the National Council of Teachers of English; and People for the American Way.