Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, has been fighting censorship for 27 years. His connections to the subject run deep: his mother was on the board of the ACLU in Colorado and his father worked in radio. Finan got his Ph.D. in history at Columbia, but acknowledges he “was a lousy teacher.” Building on his background, he took a job at Media Coalition, defending the First Amendment rights of publishers, booksellers and librarians, as well as recording, motion picture and video-game producers and retailers. “I thought it was going to be this great part-time job that would allow me to write my dissertation and get on with my life,” he says. A year later, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon announced their antipornography civil rights ordinance, which, among other things, allowed people to file suits against booksellers. “We went from a part-time organization to a full-time organization,” Finan remembers—and he has worked in the free speech world ever since.
Finan became executive director of Media Coalition in 1986. “The '80s were a period of enormous censorship activity,” he recalls. “We were under a great deal of pressure from the national administration, state legislatures and local decency groups.” Media Coalition became an important part of the fight. By the late '80s, Finan says, the American Booksellers Association decided its board was spending too much of its time on free speech issues and not enough time helping independent bookstores stay in business. ABA created ABFFE, which worked (and continues to work) closely with the Media Coalition. The founding coincided with the controversy over Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, “a wonderful challenge,” says Finan. “There were times when we weren't so confident we were going to win, but we came out of that period in pretty good shape, thanks to the industry hanging together rather than allowing itself to be hung separately.”
In 1998, Finan took over as president of ABFFE (he's also this year's Media Coalition chair); within days of his hire, Kenneth Starr subpoenaed Monica Lewinsky's bookstore records from Kramerbooks and Barnes & Noble in Georgetown. “We found ourselves facing a controversy we'd never faced before: protecting our readers' privacy. By the time 9/11 came along, we were pretty sensitive to the idea—and the Patriot Act created a huge hole in the protection of reader privacy.” That issue takes up much of Finan's time these days. ABFFE's main goal is to limit the government's ability to search bookstore records of people suspected of criminal activity. “If we could get that changed, we could eliminate 99% of the problem,” he says.
There are other challenges: 2009 has seen “a couple of worrying fights” similar to the issues Finan faced with the MacKinnon and Dworkin legislation, in which private individuals have the right to sue bookstores over content that they may dislike—but which is completely legal. One instance involved the sale of material with sexual content to minors in Louisiana. Another, slightly different, occurred in West Bend, Wis., where the public library was attacked for carrying young adult books featuring gay characters or addressing sex education. ABFFE co-sponsors the Kids Right to Read Project, which deals with the challenges to books in schools and libraries “that are intended for kids, but which people believe are not appropriate for kids.”
Helping students, teachers and librarians who are “excoriated for trying to protect the rights of kids to read” is “tremendously satisfying,” says Finan. “I get paid to defend free speech and work with people who give me support for what I do. But there are a lot of people who don't have the same kind of support system, and in fact run into a lot of criticism and personal attacks for standing up for the First Amendment.”
Finan, author of two books on free speech and politics, is writing another book, not about free speech. However, he is working with Beacon on a series of free speech histories and recently signed up a history of restrictions on student speech. Regardless of where Finan's career takes him, free speech is never far away.