Free Speech Advocates, Publishers Wrestle With Questions Of Censorship Simon and Schuster's book deal with controversial Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos drew strong criticism online, and sparked a debate on publishing's role in limiting the availability of ideas.
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Free Speech Advocates, Publishers Wrestle With Questions Of Censorship

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Free Speech Advocates, Publishers Wrestle With Questions Of Censorship

Free Speech Advocates, Publishers Wrestle With Questions Of Censorship

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Writers and publishers are grappling with how to approach free speech in a Trump presidency. Some free speech advocates see the president-elect's hostility toward the media and his tweets personally attacking his critics as evidence that he is, at best, insensitive to the First Amendment.

At the same time, the publishing world is debating the decision by Simon & Schuster to publish a book by social media provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, whom some accuse of hate speech. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: PEN America, an organization dedicated to defending the right to free speech all over the world, is starting to pay more attention to what's happening on the home front. This coming Sunday, PEN is co-sponsoring a protest which will bring a host of well-known writers to the steps of the New York Public Library to protest threats to free expression.

SUZANNE NOSSEL: We need to be, as citizens, ready to come out, stand together for basic rights that, you know, six months ago we might have been able to take for granted but that we no longer can.

NEARY: Suzanne Nossel is the executive director of PEN America. Nossel sees these threats coming from several directions - the president-elect's attacks on the press and his critics, the proliferation of fake news and the pattern of trolling on social media.

NOSSEL: People feel more free to speak their mind even if it crosses what would have been considered boundaries of hatred or racism or misogyny. And so I think it then becomes incumbent on others to speak more loudly.

NEARY: But the job of advocating for free speech has become ever more complicated in the age of social media, which Nossel says can be both an incredible tool for free expression and a threat to it.

NOSSEL: It has a dampening effect on the depth of discourse, can lead to this kind of online mobbing and trolling where someone who says something controversial is then targeted, ridiculed. So this is not about the government silencing speech, but it's about speech silencing other speech.

NEARY: Perhaps no one has crossed the line on social media more boldly than Milo Yiannopoulos, who was kicked off Twitter after he spearheaded a nasty campaign against black actress Leslie Jones. Yiannopoulos likes to describe himself as a free speech fundamentalist.


MILO YIANNOPOULOS: What the left wants to do is it wants to enable its extremists on its own side, the sexists and misandrists of the feminism, the black supremacists of Black Lives Matter. They want to enable the extremists on their own side and silence extremists on the other. Well, I don't like the extremists on either side.

NEARY: Yiannopoulos, an editor at the ultra-conservative Breitbart News, seems to take delight in infuriating people with remarks that are viewed as racist, misogynistic and anti-immigrant. So it's not surprising that Simon & Schuster's decision to publish his book drew strong criticism and calls for a boycott of the company. Dennis Johnson is the head of Melville House, a small independent publisher.

DENNIS JOHNSON: Nobody in the protest is saying you have no right to be published. You have no right, Simon & Schuster, to publish this guy, and this guy - you have no right to be published. Nobody's saying that. What they're saying is, we're shocked and we're outraged that you would stoop so low to make a buck as to publish this purveyor of vile hate speech.

NEARY: Johnson is highly critical of a statement issued by the National Coalition Against Censorship on behalf of a number of industry groups representing publishers, authors and booksellers. The NCAC said anyone has a right to call for a boycott of Simon & Schuster but that such a protest will have a chilling effect on publishing. Joan Bertin, executive director of the NCAC, says similar protests have already led to censorship.

JOAN BERTIN: We know of instances in which books that contain certain kinds of content have been shelved, deferred, redacted, edited deeply to remove content that people might object to.

NEARY: Both the NCAC and PEN America say the best response to hate speech is not more censorship.

BERTIN: Trying to suppress hateful speech doesn't make it go away. I mean I think, you know, the whole idea of free speech requires us to be active participants. And when we hear ideas that we think are bad and harmful, it requires us to say why, not just say shut up.

NEARY: But publisher Dennis Johnson says another equally important right is at stake here - the right to protest.

JOHNSON: This is not about censoring right-wing voices. This is about combating hate speech and its entry into the mainstream.

NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.


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