BookExpo and PEN America's joint panel on Thursday afternoon, "The First Amendment Resistance," found activists and speech advocates from various industries debating the ethical and civil responsibilities writers and publishers have in an era of partisan enmity and so-called alternative facts.
The event opened with a video montage comparing President Donald J. Trump to free speech-suppressing dictators from around the world. Then, in a brief introduction, BookExpo events director Brien McDonald presented PEN America executive director Suzanne Nossel with the 2017 Industry Ambassador Award. After that, moderator and On the Media host Brooke Gladstone introduced the panelists, which included video game developer and central figure in the Gamergate controversy Zoë Quinn, Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors, New York Post columnist and Commentary magazine editor John Podhoretz, and author Scott Turow.
Gladstone began the discussion by bringing up Milo Yiannopoulos's controversial cancelled book deal with conservative Simon & Schuster imprint Threshold Editions. The topic proved a sore one for an emotional Quinn, who was personally accused by Yiannopoulos of charity fraud and who was the subject of a Breitbart article that included nude pictures posted without her consent. Quinn argued that while Yiannopoulos has, under the First Amendment, the right to free speech, she singled out his rhetoric as hate speech. She claimed that publishers putting money behind Yiannopoulos's book "legitimizes" his prior hate speech.
"[Milo] learned that you can monetize and build platforms on [hatred]," Quinn said. "Every time he's given a platform, everything he's done previously is given more credence. Publishers...can publish whoever they want. But let's not say it's brave or that they stand up for free speech or facts."
Podhoretz, in a sense, concurred. "[Yiannopoulos's book] wasn't purchased because the thought was he was going to produce a work of enduring value. It was purchased because the thought was that it would be a commercially exploitable product, and when it became a non-commercially-exploitable product, or its commercial exploitation would have deleterious consequences for the publishing house as a whole, they killed it. They shouldn't have bought it in the first place. He's not a serious person."
That said, Podhoretz pointed out what has become very clear to many in the industry: "You can't silence Milo," he said. "He can take his book and put it on Amazon...or Medium. There are no gatekeepers."
For his part, Turow, who is also a lawyer, said arguing Yiannopoulos's words were responsible for the hateful, often unlawful actions of some of his readers is to go down a slippery slope. He then cited the fact that some conservative publications have argued that the Black Lives Matter movement has incited violent behavior. "Even if it were true that someone had misinterpreted the language in an unlawful way, you deal with the unlawful act," Turow said.
Turow also noted that publishing's ethical responsibility is dubious at best. "It's never clear on whether publishing is a profession beyond being a business," he said, acknowledging that it's still unclear what motivated S&S to cancel Yiannopoulos' book. "I do have [some] concerns, [and] one is that I don't want to see any writer silenced."
A visibly upset Quinn objected: "Saying that we should take action after the unlawful act has occurred—holy crap, that's asking a lot of the victim."
Cullors, for her part, said it was "unfortunate that the only reason Yiannopoulos was dropped was the pedophilia case," rather than the plethora of hateful comments he had made toward minority groups for years. She added: "Yes, there's a conversation [to be had] about the commercial publishing world, but there's also a conversation about humanity.... It's people like Milo, people like Bill O'Reilly, who are the reason for things like [the terrorist attack] that happened in Portland."
Gladstone, who served more as a fifth participant in the panel than a moderator, introduced a question about a concept she called "incestuous amplification," i.e., the phenomenon that occurs when a group of people repeats the same things to each other, resulting in a group that excludes any who disagree with them. On that, Cullers was clear: "It is in our best interest to have conversations with people who don't have the same views as you."
Turow agreed: "I would stick up for the publisher who wanted to publish the collected speeches of Donald Trump," he said, "even though I disagree with them."