When Does Nastiness Cross the Line From Free Speech to Hate Crime? PEN’s First Amendment Resistance Panel Focused on One Inflammatory Writer

Moderator: Brooke Gladstone, WNYC-FM, On the Media

Zoë Quinn, video game developer and survivor of Gamergate

Patrisse Cullors, co-founder, Black Lives Matter

John Podhoretz, conservative New York Post columnist and editor of Commentary magazine

Scott Turow, author and lawyer

PEN’s free speech campaign uses the hashtag #loudertogether. With 4800 members and 130 events per year including the PEN World Voices Festival, its website is http://pen.org. The session started with a short film documenting human rights abuses against journalists around the world, from harassment to imprisonment to murder—followed by opening remarks by Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director, PEN America.

For the most part, what follows are paraphrases as close to the original speaker’s voice as possible. Exact quotes are in quote marks, and my summaries are in brackets.

SN: The privilege to read is intimately entwined with the freedom to write. Exclusion/marginalization of ideas means those ideas become more isolated—and more dangerous. “What’s the difference between untested convictions, quackery, and government interference?” Publishing has never been just an industry. It’s “a catalyst for ideas and viewpoints,” a shaper of the culture.

PEN America attempts to “rally the community in the face of threats. We need you now more than ever”—to protect democracy, civic engagement, culture, and intellectualism.

BG: “This time it feels different, as we look at whether our roles need to be adjusted. We live in separate realities and we are capable of never encountering an opinion with which we disagree.”

Researchers conducted a split test, repeating the same statement about some minor issue and attributing to either NPR or Fox. Those who liked one news channel tended to believe the statements attributed to their channel, but not the other. This was true for both Left and Right, indicating “an unwillingness to tolerate different points of view. That requires us to look inward. I’d ask a publisher, ‘why can’t you pay for that fact-checker?’”

[Brooke asked the panel to begin by discussing Milo Yiannopoulos, who was banned from Youtube and lost a $2 million book deal with Simon & Schuster after the Chicago Review threatened to stop reviewing any Simon & Schuster books unless the contract was broken.] He called feminism “a cancer” and was a leading attacker of women gamers during Gamergate. “We can all agree he’s a bad actor”—but because the government wasn’t involved, it’s not about the First Amendment.

As it turned out, this first question led to such involved responses that the panel never really got to its mission. Here’s what the panelists had to say:

ZQ: I woke up to a phone call from a British man (Milo) who said I was a fraud because the charity [she publicly supported] had never gotten my money [a lie, according to Zoe]. People were putting dead animals in my mailbox. I became the focal point. I was so good for Breitbart and they didn’t care about the cost to me. Every time they give him more platform and legitimacy, I get more threats.

BG: But if the harassment is not in the text, should publications go beyond the text [to his hurtful behavior outside of his printed words]?

ZQ: [Publication] gives him legitimacy. Absolutely, they should look beyond.

ST: I can argue that it was a purely commercial decision [to void the book contract], not moral outrage.

ZQ: It should be commercially bad for a publisher to publish false information or hate speech [grounds for a boycott]. But it hurt the other Simon & Schuster authors.

ST: I’d be happier if it were a moral decision. But either way, they either have the right to publish or not. I hate to see any writer being silenced.

JP: There was no manuscript and it was not purchased as a work of exploitable value [when the deal was withdrawn]. It should never have been purchased in the first place. And boycott is also free speech. Often the people who ride up as martyrs [are hard to like]. That Larry Flynt won the biggest free speech case should sicken anyone. Both he and Milo are loathsome, If it were a magnificent work turned away because it was offensive, that would be different.

PC: Unfortunately, Milo’s book was dropped only because of the pedophilia case. He had harassed whole classes of people. There’s a conversation on the impact of humanity. He has created a new crew to create hate speech and call it free speech. Why are we allowing him to have a platform? The impact speaks for itself. I felt it was a huge victory when Simon & Schuster and Breitbart dropped Milo and Fox dropped Bill O’Reilly.

BG: “Incestuous amplification.” The centrist views become marginal and the loudest voices are the most extreme.

PC: From the beginning of Black Lives Matter, we heard ‘why not ALL Lives Matter?’ It’s in our interest to have conversations with those who don’t agree. We’re seeing more and more extreme moments. But in Portland, lives were threatened. We need to ask why it has become OK to attack and kill people [who look different].

BG: You can’t assume [the Portland stabber] was a creation of Trumpism. He was an equal-opportunity maniac. He was [crazy] long before Trump.

PC: 45 [Trump] is 45, but there’s an entire system of white supremacy. A lot of people in mental illness do not go and kill. Why do we excuse white men who are mentally ill? We don’t live in a healthy environment if we try to harm each other because of different views.

ZQ: Marginalized people that are afraid of getting stabbed withdraw from the discussion. They drop out if [violence] is seen as cool and normal. I used to run a crisis hotline. [Haters] need someone on their side to say it isn’t cool—and then they change.

JP: Speech is not incremental. It just is. I’m 56. When I was a teen, the idea that it was OK to abrogate someone’s speech because it was hurtful [was anathema]. Robert Morgenthau became New York State Attorney General because his opponent had prosecuted Lenny Bruce. But now, on both sides an entire group believes they have the right to shout down speech they don't like. That’s alarming!

ST: I’m uncomfortable with the idea that Milo shouldn’t be published because it will engage other people to publish hate speech. I don’t think Black Lives Matter should be silenced. Even if it were true that someone was inspired to act unlawfully—you punish the act, not the speech. You don’t prosecute Milo because you don’t want others to act on his words.

ZQ: That’s asking a lot of the victim. That’s a way to abuse somebody. When it comes to ‘can we prevent a lot of harm by denying a platform, funding, visibility?’ Do we have to empower him? There hasn’t been a single prosecution in Gamergate. I had to make 10 court appearances [show cause hearings about her ex] in Boston, where I wasn’t safe.

JP: People are reaching out to find the most extreme opinions. Now, in social media, people can see others talking trash about them. There are no gatekeepers. We’re trying to find out where the gates are. I got antisemitic trolling from Milo for supporting Trump.

ST: I agree with Zoe that even if it’s not unlawful, publishers should not publish what they know is false. But I’d stick up for a publisher who would publish the collected speeches of Donald Trump, even though it would be full of falsehoods.

PC: This conversation is in a vacuum. We have to bring in power and privilege.

Shel Horowitz’s coverage of Book Expo since 1997 can be found at http://frugalmarketing.com/dtb/dtb-publishing.shtml. His award-winning 10th book is Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World.

Click to read the rest of Shel’s reports on the 2017 Book Expo:

The “Elena Ferrante” Model: How Independent Publishers Excel In Promoting International Literature

A Bold Move to Redefine Publishing in Asia and Africa: The Sharjah Initiative

The Year of Female Empowerment: 2017 Show Report

SecurityMetrics for PCI Compliance, QSA, IDS, Penetration Testing, Forensics, and Vulnerability Assessment


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