How Did We Get Here?, or Why I Resigned from the ABA Board

Kenny Brechner -- November 1st, 2021

 “How did we get here?” is a question commonly asked by people who inadvertently stumble into inter-dimensional portals and by unwitting time travelers. I ask and seek to answer it now in contemplating the reality that the American Booksellers Association’s (ABA’s) free speech arm, American Booksellers For Free Expression) ABFE, is now being subject to having its own speech constricted. While that may be a boon for lovers of mordant irony, it is a less happy development for those of us who bear the conviction that free speech is a compelling and vital process that must operate in accordance with its own core principle of tolerating all First Amendment-protected speech. 

I am writing today to explain why I resigned from the ABA Board after four and a half years of service. In September the Board voted to restrict its active support and defense of free expression by changing its Ends Policies regarding free expression to read as follows. “Core members have the resources in support of their right to freedom of expression.” This nebulous statement undermined ABA’s long established role as a defender of free expression in the literary world. Pointedly it constricted ABFE’s scope in representing the voices of ABA members. My objection to this change was a dissenting voice and I speak strictly for myself. So, how did we get here?

Trade organizations are strange beasts, operating like small countries with governments, executives, employees, citizens, allies, enemies, diplomacy, and public relations. While they may be primarily governed by board members, a trade organization exists to enhance the welfare of all its members. Just as a strong author trusts her readers and vice versa so does a strong organization trust its members. The most important commonality of trade organizations and countries is that their character is determined by how they define and interpret the concept of freedom. There exists both freedom to and freedom from. In a modern democracy, freedom is primarily understood as the freedom to. The actions and purpose of governance follow John Locke’s idea of a social contract. In a state of nature, power accumulates and centralizes, the powerful dominate the weak, and individuals are largely unfree. The job of governance is to regulate matters in such a way that its individual members and dependents have as much freedom as possible.

This has been the core understanding of ABA: that supporting government regulation of the economy in terms of anti-trust provided a more level playing field in which its members had more freedom to thrive. ABA also stood for free expression for more than a century, understanding that protecting all voices was the only means to protect vulnerable voices from censorship and suppression.

Today, ABA has come to adopt a freedom from ethos. In its resolute determination to consider free expression an impediment to the values recently enumerated in its Ends Policies—antiracism, equity, access, and representation—the ABA has turned away from its long-established protection of minority voices and democratic interpretations of freedom and liberty. In the name of protecting a vulnerable segment of its constituents from harm, ABA has adopted a position that dilutes the very principles that have steadfastly defended them. Many of us recognize that the literary world is polarized and troubled, which is why we must defend its core values now, and will dearly miss them when the political pendulum next swings to the right.

Harm is real, and it is also innately subjective. That is not to say that it has been evenly distributed nor that privileged voices have not been far more insulated from it than disenfranchised and marginalized voices have. In fact, that is why free speech has been more active in protecting minority voices. Nonetheless, free speech cannot work on a collectivization model, taking from the privileged and giving to the disenfranchised a la Robin Hood. In order for free speech to work, it must protect all speech. Without protecting all speech, the tyranny of the powerful is assured. In choosing to engage in a selective and at times suppressive response to speech, ABA has turned away from this fundamental understanding.

Protecting the speech we find offensive so that our own speech is protected can be emotionally messy. It is built upon the intellectual appreciation that there is no free expression without free expression for all. Free expression is not about putting forward that all speech is equal, nor that exclusion isn’t harmful, but rather that the suppression of speech is the greater harm.  There is little truth in the idea that free speech is the prerogative of the powerful who don’t want to give up some of their power so that the disenfranchised can speak. Those in power have almost no impediment to their speech. And the only impediment to their exercise of suppression, is the principle of free expression itself. The defense of free expression is the only means to protect the speech of the disenfranchised, the powerless, and the critics of power. Civil rights, LGBTQ+, Black Lives Matter—no movement for social justice or protest could operate absent the defense of free speech.

Centers of power and political and social sensibility have always shifted over time in America. However, the impulse to suppress speech that individuals or groups consider wrong or offensive is omnipresent. The political right are feeling marginalized at present and hence gravitating to free expression. It would be historically myopic to think they will stay there. The federal judiciary has been taken over. Voter suppression by state legislatures is at hand. Inflation and unemployment are new buttons for the right to press. We are likely to see a vocal Moral Majority return, wielding censorship with a heavy hand.

ABA’s primary directive of serving all members can only be carried out by supporting and defending free expression. If ABA is primarily concerned with the well being of all its members and their booksellers, an emphasis on shared humanity, understanding, compassion and resilience will serve it best. In believing that it has found a new, enlightened way to selectively co-exist with free expression, ABA has only provided modern garb for the age-old rationalization of the impulse to censor.

Hope for a robust and dynamic world of creative expression lies in critical tolerance. An enforced orthodoxy is toxic to creativity, personal expression and good governance. The more that free expression is under fire, the more it is needed. To turn our back on it in this moment is a grave mistake.

Addendum:
A number of folks have written to ask about the prior versions of the End Policies. That is a good question and so here is the information.

The Ends Policies as of January 2020 read as follows.

Legal and regulatory policy will reflect the interests of independent bookstores, including free expression and fair-trade practices

It was altered in March 2021 as follows.

Legal and regulatory policies reflect the interests of independent bookstores in such areas as antitrust action, small business assistance, and the First Amendment right to free speech as it relates to the bookselling industry.

It was altered again in September 2021 as follows.

Core members have the resources in support of their right to freedom of expression

8 thoughts on “How Did We Get Here?, or Why I Resigned from the ABA Board

  1. Steve Fischer

    Right on, Kenny! I know from personal experience with you how much serving the bookselling community means to you, and how seriously you took your responsibility as a member of the ABA board.
    You are not alone in this, and your voice is being heard. Thank you for so eloquently expressing a concern many of us have.
    Steve Fischer

  2. Jack McKeown

    Bravo. As a former publishing CEO, publisher, and weirdly, independent bookstore owner, I wrote to the ABA in August, 2021 to decry their abandonment of free speech as a core objective. I am still awaiting a response.

  3. a.r.

    Industry outsider here: The new Ends Policy wording does sound vague, but what was the language before this change? In reviewing the policy on ABA’s site (https://www.bookweb.org/news/changes-aba-ends-policies-1626640) it looks like before October, there wasn’t any language about having access to resources to support freedom of expression. Seems to me the change is an improvement because it outlines a tactic of how to support booksellers in their freedom of expression. Or maybe I’m misunderstanding.

    1. Kenny Brechner Post author

      It marks a shift from a clear commitment, as an organization, to free expression advocacy and defense, to a nebulous support of providing resources to individuals. ABFE has always provided resources to individuals as a matter of course, that was not mentioned in the Ends as it was considered a means to help enact what was then ABA’s core support of Free Expression.

  4. Carol B. Chittenden

    How tempting it can be to bend before the lash of righteousness, whether form left or right. Would that ABA (and/or regionals) would hold seminars to help members clarify the meaning and application of free speech in daily practice.

  5. Emily Schneider

    Thank you for this eloquent defense of free speech. It is difficult, but important, to understand that it applies to speech with which we disagree. Yes, the right wing is threatening American democracy in many ways, including by attempting to subvert education, and even using violence against educators to do so. Yet progressives still have to be aware of the dangers inherent in carving out exceptions in the interest of advancing legitimate, even urgent, causes.

  6. william A palizzolo

    The voice of reason in a currently unreasonable world.

    We should all be careful of what we wish for, because we might just get it.

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