I Am Charlie: ABFE Director Chris Finan on the Challenges of Confronting Threats to Free Speech

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“I am Charlie.”

These are thrilling words. In the wake of a horrifying massacre, they express the determination to defend free speech at any cost.

This takes courage. It is courageous to publish a magazine like Charlie Hebdo that challenges the powerful, knowing they may seek revenge. It is braver still considering the magazine’s offices were firebombed in 2011 and Al Qaeda had threatened another attack. Stephane Charbonnier, the editorial director, had to travel with a bodyguard, but he and his staff refused to pull their punches. Even after the murder of 11 of their colleagues, the surviving staff put a cartoon of Muhammad on the cover, ignoring fears that this might provoke more violence.

It is easy to see why it takes courage to exercise free speech. Throughout history, people who express ideas that threaten the status quo have been harassed, jailed, beaten, and killed. In the United States, the First Amendment was largely ignored for 140 years, as the government waged war against a wide range of radical thinkers — abolitionists, feminists, unionists, socialists, communists, and anarchists. More recently, we have seen government surveillance and crackdowns on civil rights activists, anti-war demonstrators, and other dissidents.

For many years, the American people approved the suppression of people whose views they abhorred. At first, the book industry was no exception. Publishers, booksellers, and librarians believed it to be their job to protect the public from unorthodox views. Massachusetts booksellers even worked with the censors to suppress “indecent” novels.

But attitudes began to change in the 1920s, when censorship laws threatened books by Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, and other authors who depicted society — and sex — with increasing realism. The publishing industry emerged from the decade with a commitment to give their customers the books they wanted.

There have been many battles over censorship in the intervening years. The scariest moment came in 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini called for the murder of Salman Rushdie and everyone involved in the publication of The Satanic Verses (Viking Penguin), which he considered blasphemous because it included Muhammad as a character. Muslims around the world protested, and violence broke out in many places. The Japanese translator of the book was killed; the Italian translator was stabbed and seriously wounded; and the Norwegian publisher was shot three times.

In the United States, demonstrators picketed bookstores, and threats of violence forced Waldenbooks and B. Dalton to stop selling the book for five days. However, most independent booksellers continued to sell the book, including both Andy Ross, the owner of Cody’s Books in Berkeley, California, and the manager of a neighboring Waldenbooks. (After initially pulling the book, Walden had given its store managers the option to return it to the shelves.)

It was no coincidence when both stores were firebombed. Two bombs were thrown into Cody’s, although only one exploded. Neither store was seriously damaged. On the same day, someone also bombed the offices of the Riverdale Press in New York City, probably in retaliation for an editorial condemning the chains for pulling Satanic Verses.

ABA strongly opposed the efforts to suppress Rushdie’s book. Along with the Association of American Publishers and the American Library Association we published a full-page ad in the New York Times on the day that The Satanic Verses was published that read, “Free People Write Books. Free People Publish Books. Free People Sell Books. Free People Buy Books. Free People Read Books.”

Later, ABA was an active member of the International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie and played an important role in arranging a meeting between Rushdie and President Bill Clinton. Rushdie often expressed his gratitude to booksellers, most recently in 2012 on the publication of his memoir, Joseph Anton.

Lately, many of the scariest moments for American booksellers have arisen around author appearances. The latest occurred in October when 23 stores were threatened with a boycott if they did not cancel events for Stephen Jimenez, the author of Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Sheppard (Steerforth). The bookstores refused, and all the events were held without incident.

There have been so many controversies over author events that ABFE will sponsor a program at the Winter Institute, “It Can Happen to You: Booksellers Confront Free Speech Emergencies,” on Tuesday, February 10, from 10:20 to 11:45 a.m. Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books in Miami and Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, will share lessons they have learned in handling protests at their stores, while Susan McAnelly of Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, will describe her store’s role in the fight against the banning of Emily M. Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Balzer & Bray) in the local schools.

One of the lessons we have learned is that our customers want us to defend free speech. The demonstration by nearly two million French citizens on Sunday is just the latest manifestation of public support for free speech.

Bookstore customers have shown over and over again that they are ready to support us when we take a stand. In Rehoboth Beach, according to Browseabout Books, the store received an outpouring of support when it began giving students free copies of The Miseducation of Cameron Post. There was nothing but positive feedback online and in-person.

ABA is continuing to lead in the fight against censorship. The latest example is its sponsorship of a public demonstration of support for Charlie Hebdo. It is encouraging booksellers to post pictures of themselves, their customers, and visiting authors holding a sign with the words, “Je Suis Charlie.”

Please join us. This isn’t just a fight about Charlie Hebdo or about developments in France. It’s about standing up for free expression everywhere and all the time.

We are all Charlie.

Chris Finan is the director of the American Booksellers for Free Expression and the author of several books, including From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America (Beacon Press).