The National Coalition Against Censorship is deeply concerned by the decision to cancel the publication of a self-help book by cartoonist Scott Adams because of offensive remarks he made on YouTube. It comes during a time of an increased policing of ideas. We are in the midst of a national censorship crisis in public schools and libraries. Pressure on private cultural institutions to avoid potentially offensive content is leading to such anachronistic measures as the expurgation of words from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s books. People on the left and right trade charges of censorship, even as they demand censorship themselves. In this context, the cancellation of Adams’ book, solely because of some bigoted, yet unrelated statements made by its author, can only make things worse.
There is no question that Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House, has a First Amendment legal right to terminate its agreement to publish Adams’ book, Reframe Your Brain: The User Interface for Happiness and Success. It wanted to disassociate its brand from the author’s statements, which are widely perceived as racist. So did the hundreds of newspapers that dropped Dilbert, Adams’ popular comic strip.
But, no matter how well-intentioned the motivation, in the end both book bans and book cancellations have the same result: the suppression of ideas. The United States has a long history of censorship. Its founders engaged in censorship just a few years after the adoption of the First Amendment, and suppression continued into the 20th century, usually as a weapon to silence demands for equal rights.
By 1953, in the midst of the McCarthy era, it became clear to a group of librarians and publishers that it was necessary to start fighting for free speech—for everyone. In the Freedom to Read Statement, they set forth six principles of intellectual freedom. One is particularly relevant to the current situation: “It is contrary to the public interest for publishers or librarians to bar access to writings on the basis of the personal history or political affiliations of the author.”
In our unforgiving social-media driven times, controversial commentary can rapidly become a scandal, and the public pressure to dissociate from the person at the center of such a scandal is often intense. But when book and newspaper publishers respond to this pressure by swiftly suppressing the work of an author—especially one whose other ideas and works they have previously endorsed—they open the door for endless demands to blacklist controversial individuals.
Book cancellations may garner short term praise, but, in the long term, the public interest in access to a broad range of ideas, no matter how unpopular, is gravely compromised.