Criticism vs. Suppression

Kenny Brechner - December 13, 2016

The differences between hateful speech and constitutionally restricted hate speech, between criticism and suppression, have become subsumed in the publishing world as there have been a spate of recent critical discussions regarding published books which swiftly devolved into social media choruses calling to have these books removed from publication, or to have their publication cancelled. In several recent examples this year those calls were successful and the books were either removed, cancelled, or indefinitely delayed.
At DDG Booksellers, for the last 25 years, I have had the same ordering policy as most other bookstores. I stock the books from publishers which I choose to stock as a professional buyer. Selections are filtered based on my experience and understanding of our local market and also according to my personal biases, both positive and negative. My freedom to choose from among published books flows directly from their publishers’ freedom to publish whatever titles they choose to publish. I will, however, order absolutely anything a customer asks me to as long as it is in print and available. The store’s policy embodies both my right as a buyer and proprietor to stock the books I want to carry and the right of my customers to read and purchase whatever books they want to own and read.

Some years ago a customer special ordered several titles from a publisher called the Noontide Press, the publishing arm of the Institute for Historical Review, which turned out to specialize in books and journals denying the Holocaust. Though an entirely secular person, ethnically I am of German Jewish descent. As you may expect, these particular special ordered books were spectacularly offensive to me. I called the publisher and ordered them anyway. They represented falsifying history, denying genocide, and were profoundly anti-Semitic. I considered them hateful books. Nonetheless they did not represent hate speech exempted from First Amendment protection. The only legal exceptions to First Amendment speech involves “fighting words,” words which would provoke a reasonable person to violence, or words given in a context likely to cause imminent harm to others, “incitement intended to and likely to produce imminent illegal conduct.”[i]
When we think of restricted speech the most commonly attributed exemplar is the “dangerous speech” example of shouting fire in a crowded theater, which was given in the Supreme Court’s Schenck v. United States decision. When a book is labeled as racist and hate speech, “the kind of garbage that needs to be eliminated at all levels, particularly in publishing.”[ii] and a volley of calls for sending the book to the guillotine follows, it is the First Amendment that ends up being trampled by the publisher’s frantic exit from a crowded theater. Criticizing a book is vitally important, calling for its suppression is dangerous.
Suppression of published works is a deprivation of liberty. The price of that liberty is the coexistence and interaction with books of which we are critical, a price which it is crucial we pay. That critical dialogue is an integral part of the living process of a healthy and dynamic literary marketplace. In the present moment, with the First Amendment already under fire, this is not the time to undermine it further with calls for publishers and authors to self-censor. Publishers need our support for publishing whatever they choose, in their professional opinion, to publish. Poor decisions will result in poor sales, just as our own poor buying decisions do. We can criticize their decisions both in speech and by not buying the books, but we should adamantly defend the publishers’ right to publish them.
[i] No, there’s no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment, by Eugene Volokh,

11 thoughts on “Criticism vs. Suppression

  1. Ellen Pyle

    Bravo. As much as I would love it if hatred and bigotry would vanish from existence, we must be vigilant in our efforts to not suppress free speech.

  2. Elizabeth Bluemle

    Kenny, this is such a huge issue, and difficult to talk about. We need a discussion about what is free speech vs. what is hate speech and the ramifications of withdrawing books from publication. I’ve felt pulled by both sides of the latter issue; your commitment to free speech / freedom of expression has always made me step back and consider more deeply some of my own reactions. Your anecdote about ordering for a customer books that were personally and politically offensive to you (Holocaust denial!) is especially powerful proof of your admirable defense of free speech. Thanks for writing your post.

  3. Donna Gephart

    Kenny, thank you for your thoughtful, well-reasoned comments. These words resonated deeply: “Criticizing a book is vitally important, calling for its suppression is dangerous.”

  4. Summer Laurie

    With this piece I am again reminded to regularly ask myself, “What would Kenny do?” Thank you for so succinctly and intelligently speaking what I–and many of us–have been trying to say.

  5. Michael W. Perry

    Thanks for a marvelous, well-reasoned article. I might add that years ago I endured enough of the Holocaust deniers on Seattle’s open cable channel to realize that attempting to ban their speech backfires. There’s a certain kind of people who think that banning something means it’s true. “The Holocaust must not have happened,” these people think, “otherwise why is saying that a crime?” And don’t forget that countries that punish Holocaust denial often don’t punish the denial of Stalin’s crimes. There is a hypocrisy there.
    There’s another issue that’s being left unsaid. In Europe bans are hate speech are selectively applied. You can say what you want about Catholics, non-conformist Protestants (i.e. Baptists and Methodists), and the more orthodox Jews without incuring legal action. On the other hand, pointing out that some branches of Islam are violent and brutally repressive—and undeniable fact—will get you prosecuted for hate speech. Why is that?
    The reason isn’t quite as illogical as it sounds. It has a logic of its own that is being concealed. What are Europeans doing when they criticize Islamic-inspired violence? They’re criticizing their own government’s policies stretching back into the 1960s, policies that have admitted millions of immigrants from the North Africa, the Middle East and Turkey who have not integrated well into European societies.
    Now for the critical factor. When you criticize those policies, you’re criticizing the politicians who advocate them. That is why you can bash Catholics, Evangelical Protestants and religious Jews—lying about them, as much as you want—without incuring the wrath of these advocates of hate speech laws. That’s because the immigration of those non-violent religious groups isn’t being championed by them. An attack on Baptist immigration into Germany, for instance, isn’t a criticism of Merkel or her colleagues. Criticism of Islamic immigration is.
    In short, so-called ‘hate speech’ laws are simply a scheme to slip long discredited seditious libel laws in by the back door. That’s why the truth of so-called ‘hate speech’ is treated as irrelevant. In sediious libel laws, the truth of a change “against the established order” is irrelevant. It’s enough that it makes those in government look bad. The “hate” of “hate speech” laws is actually the hatred politicians, policy makers and many in the news media have for their critics.
    Much the same is true of speech codes on American campuses. They’re also selectively applied and behind that lies a hidden logic. What’s really being censored isn’t hate speech. It’s speech that goes against the dogmas of university administrators and faculty. Those speech codes and speaker bans are the academic equivalent of seditious libel. “How dare you criticize what we are teaching in our classes,” is what they are actually saying.
    I might add that, for those who work in bookstores, selling someone a book doesn’t mean you cannot tell that customer that what they believe is wrong. Free speech means being free to disagreed. You might even offer them, for free, a copy of a book such as Anne Frank’s diary.
    When a exhibition of the Dead Sea scrolls came to Seattle’s Pacific Science Center almost a decade ago, it had far more security than the half-dozen city cops people saw at the entrance. I know because I worked at it. And the reason is that quite a few of those with an anti-Israeli bent don’t like such clear evidence that Jews have long lived in the region. Once in a convenience store of apparent Arab origin clearly wasn’t happy when I mentioned where I was working. “Tough,” I hinted to his displeasure, “what the Dead Sea scrolls say is history, like it or not.”
    We need to do the same with Holocaust deniers. Don’t silence them. Disagree with them.
    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride (a YA novel about racial violence)

  6. adrianne

    Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Pointing out why you disagree with something is more effective than saying “you can’t have this because I think its icky”. Also, there’s the presumption that people should be free to make up their own minds, form their own opinions — maybe that’s what the customer was doing by ordering books from Noontide Press.


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