The Department of Justice on Tuesday filed a civil suit in Washington D.C. over former national security adviser John Bolton’s forthcoming memoir, The Room Where It Happened, just days ahead of the book's June 23 publication date. In its 27-page complaint, the government claims that its prepublication review is not yet complete, and that Bolton's manuscript remains “rife with classified information" and in violation of non-disclosure agreements.
The government is seeking an order directing Bolton to take “all actions within his power to stop the publication and dissemination of his book as currently drafted,” as well as “a constructive trust on any profits” obtained from a book published before the government completes its review and authorizes its release.
“The United States is not seeking to censor any legitimate aspect of Defendant’s manuscript,” the complaint reads, “it merely seeks an order requiring Defendant to complete the prepublication review process and to take all steps necessary to ensure that only a manuscript that has been officially authorized through that process—and is thus free of classified information—is disseminated publicly.”
Bolton and his attorneys, however, have expressed concern that the Trump Administration is using the review process to “suppress” the book. And, while not committing to the June 23 publication date, Bolton’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, backed its author in a statement issued Tuesday evening.
“The lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice to block John Bolton from publishing his book, The Room Where It Happened, is nothing more than the latest in a long-running series of efforts by the Administration to quash publication of a book it deems unflattering to the President,” the S&S statement reads. “Ambassador Bolton has worked in full cooperation with the NSC in its prepublication review to address its concerns and Simon & Schuster fully supports his First Amendment right to tell the story of his time in the White House to the American public.”
The suit details a lengthy review process. According to court filings, Bolton first submitted his manuscript for review on December 30, 2019. On January 23, 2020, a National Security Council (NSC) representative informed Bolton that based on “a preliminary review” the book could “not be published or otherwise disclosed” without revisions. The complaint notes that Bolton did make revisions and engaged in multiple conversations with the NSC to address issues, before being leveled up to Michael Ellis, the NSC’s Senior Director for Intelligence, in early May. The suit concedes that after Bolton's last written request for an update on the manuscript's status in early May, the author was basically told he'd just have to wait.
"[Bolton] was expressly informed in writing on May 7, 2020, that there was no new information that could be provided at that time and that the process remained ongoing. Defendant was further advised that the NSC would reach out as soon as there was an update," the complaint states. On June 7, NSC officials then "first learned" from media reports that Bolton and his publisher were pressing forward with a June 23 publication.
This is far from the first time authors and publishers have accused the government of using the review process to suppress controversial viewpoints or disclosures. In April of 2019, The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the government seeking more transparency regarding various agencies' prepublication book review processes. On April 16, 2020, however, a district court dismissed that case, which is now awaiting an appeal.
In a statement, Jameel Jaffer, executive director at the Knight First Amendment Institute pointed out that the suit doesn't ask the court to outright block publication of Bolton's memoir, but rather it seeks to pressure the author to otherwise delay publication.
“The government’s complaint is strategically ambiguous about what relief it’s seeking, and against whom," Jaffer explains. "But any effort to enjoin the publication of a book raises serious First Amendment concerns, and those concerns are heightened here because there are credible reports that the White House's interest is not in protecting national security but in suppressing criticism of the president."