NCAC’s Chris Finan Talks Free Speech at PubWest

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National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) Executive Director Chris Finan delivered a featured talk for publishers attending the annual PubWest conference last weekend to discuss what he characterized as the country’s growing free speech crisis amid a climate of increasing ideological polarization and political divisiveness.

NCAC Executive Director Chris Finan
NCAC Executive Director Chris Finan

Finan previously served as executive director of the American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE), part of the American Booksellers Association; ABFE is now directed by ABA’s David Grogan.

On Saturday, February 17, before an audience of about 100 publishing professionals gathered at the Westin Pasadena in Pasadena, California, ABA CEO Oren Teicher introduced his colleague and friend, whom he has known for the past 30 years, since Finan was the executive director of Media Coalition.

I’ve had the privilege of working with Chris on many, many free expression matters, and I can tell you that the First Amendment has no better friend and advocate than Chris Finan,” Teicher told publishers. “He has spent the bulk of his adult life on the frontlines of virtually every important free expression fight over the past 35 years. His knowledge and understanding of the nuances of these debates has no equal. And I can tell you that his extraordinary efforts have made a real difference in ensuring that there has been no erosion in First Amendment protections for all Americans.

“While it is true that First Amendment and free expression controversies continue to swirl around us,” added Teicher. “We can all take great comfort in knowing that Chris Finan is there fighting.”

Finan then began his speech, titled “Threats to Free Speech in an Age of Protest,” describing his experience since joining NCAC in July 2017.

“When I took over the job at NCAC, all my friends congratulated me by telling me that I certainly was going to have my hands full. Of course, I laughed, but I have to say that they were right. There seems to be a new free speech problem every day,” said Finan. “The one thing that everyone can agree on is that right now, there is something wrong with free speech.”

Recent examples noted by Finan include President Donald Trump condemning various pieces of journalism as “fake news” more than 150 times during his first year in office and taking the unprecedented step to try to suppress the publication of a book about him (Michael Wolff’s White House exposé Fire and Fury, published by Henry Holt & Co.), though, as Finan pointed out, Trump has sworn an oath as president to uphold the First Amendment. At the same time, the country has witnessed a rise in people who believe in social justice speaking out in situations where they view free speech as an obstacle to that justice, Finan said.

“After [the violence over the summer] in Charlottesville, everybody was trying to figure out how they could suppress hate speech, and in the book industry what we’ve seen is a series of controversies over books, many of them children’s books,” Finan said. The examples he noted included A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Schwartz and Wade, 2015) and A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Scholastic, 2016). Both became sources of controversy due to their depictions of slaves experiencing moments of happiness. Critics on social media complained that the books romanticized slavery and demanded their suppression. The author of A Fine Dessert apologized. Scholastic withdrew Birthday Cake for George Washington.

In 2016, Candlewick decided to delay publication of When We Was Fierce by E.E. Charlton-Trujillo due to criticism that it traded on stereotypes of African Americans; later that year, the author of Bad Little Children’s Books (Abrams), a satirical take on Little Golden Books, asked the publisher to stopping selling the book after two illustrations were decried as racist. Finan also mentioned last year’s fight over Dangerous by alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulis. Critics in the general public as well as many in publishing demanded cancellation of the book. After reviewing the manuscript and declaring it unacceptable, Simon Schuster dropped the book.

More and more, Finan told the attending publishers, the country is witnessing the effects of extreme polarization, years in the making, due to factors such as the legacy of racism and increasing economic inequality. In his address he argued that the growing divide has caused people to isolate themselves ideologically into liberal and conservative bubbles, in terms of both their communities and their choice of media.

“It has become increasingly hard for people to talk to one another about their differences, and the result is that it seems like if we can’t resolve our differences ourselves, the only real answer is to try to suppress the opinions we disapprove of,” said Finan. This, he warned, is a serious threat to democracy.

According to Finan, a series of discussions immediately after the 2016 election with ABA CEO Oren Teicher and ABA Senior Strategy Officer Dan Cullen resulted in a possible new initiative for bookstores: the “Open Discussion Project,” in which ABA and NCAC would provide booksellers with the resources and guidance they need to facilitate constructive in-store discussions of divisive issues.

“We want to make a concerted effort to give them the tools they need to reach out to all elements of their community and to bring them into the conversation: specifically, to create reading groups that would provide a venue for people to sit down with each other and actually relate to each other as human beings rather than digital footprints on the Internet,” said Finan.

“Hopefully in the process of discussing books that deal with issues from different divisive points of view, both conservative and liberal, people will grasp the fact that there are things we have in common, like concerns about our families, our communities, and our country, and that our differences are something we can talk about.”

Sarah Goddin, manager of Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina, created a model for the book groups in May, Finan said. Every month, the “Bridging the Divide” group alternates liberal and conservative nonfiction books. There are two moderators, a liberal and a conservative, who take turns leading each session to avoid any appearance of political favoritism.

This fall, Finan told publishers, ABA and NCAC will roll out the pilot program for the Open Discussion Project at a small number of bookstores in districts around the country that are equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. The plan, he said, is that after a year of experimentation at these trial bookstores and learning which models work best, the program will be introduced at bookstores nationwide in fall 2019.

Currently, NCAC is applying for grants to fund the project, reaching out to libraries about providing additional venues, and contacting some conservative groups about promoting the project to their constituencies, who may be more reluctant to join a discussion at an independent bookstore, assuming the event will have a liberal slant.

“I can see that a lot of people hearing about this for the first time may think we are a little naïve,” said Finan. “How are we going to crack such deep polarization with little groups of people scattered around the country? But we have to try — this is what democracy is all about.”

Finan concluded his speech by quoting from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who wrote in 1919 that free speech is the only way to resolve differences in a democracy.

Democracy “is an experiment, as all life is an experiment,” Holmes wrote. “Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based on imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system, I think we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death.”

The audience responded with a standing ovation.

While the Open Discussion Project is not currently recruiting any new booksellers for the pilot program, anyone with questions can contact Finan at [email protected]. Watch Bookselling This Week for updates about the project.