The First Amendment has never been stronger. Yet freedom of speech is under dire threat. Both of these things can be true, and both are.
The kinds of corporations that frequently proclaim their dedication to the First Amendment — and are quick to denounce President Trump’s taunts of the media — are doing something Trump has not done and will not do: muzzling writers. Publishers are presenting authors with contracts containing clauses that essentially say, “We will cut you loose should a Twitter mob come after you.” It’s a revolting, shameful trend.
As Judith Shulevitz writes in the New York Times, Condé Nast, publisher of The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and many other magazines, recently started burying in its standard writers’ contracts a landmine. If the company should unilaterally rule that the writer has become “the subject of public disrepute, contempt, complaints or scandals,” the publisher can void the contract. Shulevitz mislabels such stipulations “morality clauses.” To paraphrase Mae West, morality has nothing to do with it. “Cowardice clauses” would be nearer the mark.
I won’t bore you by recounting all the times The New Yorker and Vanity Fair have railed against the president for supposedly endangering the freedom of people like its staffers to speak their minds. Now, the owner of these magazines is demanding that its own writers censor themselves, if they know what’s good for them. This is not just a stain on some of a free press’s loudest defenders, it promises to narrow and diminish the range of ideas they publish. If you know a field is mined, but have not been furnished with a map of each explosive’s location, why would you stray into that area at all? The New Yorker might as well place a sign above its office doors saying, “Warning: Do not be interesting.” (“Isn’t it there already?” I hear some wags replying, but The New Yorker remains replete with interesting material.)
As for Vanity Fair, for many years it published the musings of one Christopher Hitchens. Remember him? He said Michelle Obama’s undergraduate thesis wasn’t written in any known language. He said, about the Iraq War, that “the death toll is not nearly high enough.” He called Mother Teresa “a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud.” Most unforgivable of all, he said women aren’t funny. Any guesses on whether, in today’s social-media atmosphere, one or two of his columns might cause a little light apoplexy on Twitbook or Facer? (I can report from personal experience that merely quoting what Hitchens said about Mrs. Obama gets you predictably and boringly tagged as racist.)
Book-publishing giants Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and Penguin Random House have added cowardice clauses to their standard book contracts, and Shulevitz says she’s heard that Hachette Book Group is considering doing the same. (Penguin, to its credit, allows authors to keep their advances, but others don’t, says Shulevitz.) Penguin’s clause justifies itself with a reference to anticipated adverse impacts on business, warning authors not to do anything that might cause “sustained, widespread public condemnation of the author that materially diminishes the sales potential of the work.” That rationalization won’t withstand much scrutiny. Bill O’Reilly’s latest book stands at number four on the Times’ nonfiction bestseller list, and he was not only pilloried for years but actually fired by Fox News Channel owing to scandal. Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, Tucker Carlson, and many other commentators who are vilified daily on social media (and in D’Souza’s case, actually spent time behind bars) sell books by the truckload. If anything, “being the subject of public disrepute, contempt, complaints or scandals” seems to boost sales, and publishers are well aware of this. Calumny, contumely, and controversy sell. I’m on the Fence About Trump is not a title Simon and Schuster wants to publish.
So why are book and magazine publishers putting such language in their contracts? Because they fear rebuke themselves. They don’t want to get dragged by association. “@PenguinRandom are you okay with what your author Mac McSmartypants just said to Chris Cuomo???” is not a comment a book publisher wants to see issuing from the Olympus of Alyssa Milano’s Twitter account and retweeted so many times that it reaches more people than the population of France. The temperate response — “Publishing an author does not constitute an endorsement of his or her ideas” — will be ignored, laughed at, swept away in the tide of outrage, even though it’s true.
Much as soldiers report that every minute in a firefight seems like an eternity, though, social-media firestorms seem endless only when you’re in one. Even the really intense ones are usually over in days, sometimes hours. Private companies can, of course, impose whatever content restrictions they like on authors of the material they publish, but an entity devoted to the transmission of thought in forms that it hopes will endure ought to pride itself in having a longer attention span than a social-media mob. It ought also to prize diversity of opinion. Cowardice clauses stand to steer everyone toward dispensing received wisdom.
As for writers, courage. You know what the Hitch’s response would have been when presented with a contract containing one of these clauses: two words, beginning with an F and ending with an “off.” Yes, most of you lack his stature. Nevertheless, honor his boldness. Link your arms. Plant your feet. Make a stand for the culture of free expression just as you would for the First Amendment itself. Don’t sign.