We have been discussing the rising support for censorship on the left in the last few years. Silencing opposing views has become an article of faith for many on the left, including leading Democratic leaders from President Joe Biden to former President Barack Obama. What is most distressing is how many journalists and writers have joined the call for censorship. However, even with this growing movement, the letter of hundreds of “literary figures” this week to Penguin Random House is chilling. The editors and writers call on the company to rescind a book deal with Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett because they disagree with her judicial philosophy. After all, why burn books when you can effectivelyban them?
The public letter entitled “We Dissent” makes the usual absurd protestation that, just because we are seeking to ban books of those with opposing views, we still “care deeply about freedom of speech.” They simply justify their anti-free speech position by insisting that any harm “in the form of censorship” is less than “the form of assault on inalienable human rights” in opposing abortion or other constitutional rights.
Yet, the letter is not simply dangerous. It is perfectly delusional. While calling for the book to be blocked, the writers bizarrely insist “we are not calling for censorship.”
While the letter has been described as signed by “literary figures,” it actually contains many who are loosely connected to the “broader literary community” like “Philip Tuley, Imam” and “Barbara Hirsch, Avid reader.” It also includes many who are simply identified by initials or first names like “Leslie” without any stated connection.
Nevertheless, there are many editors and publishing figures who list their companies (including HarperCollins, Random House and other companies) and university presses (including Cambridge, Harvard, Michigan Northwestern, Oxford) with their titles in calling for censorship. The list speaks loudly to why dissenting or conservative authors find it more difficult to publish today. These are editors who are publicly calling for banning the publication of those who hold opposing views from their own.
It also includes academics like Ignacio Leopoldo Götz Römer, Stessin Distinguished Professor Emeritus, New College of Hofstra University and Carole DeSanti, Elizabeth Drew Professor of English Language and Literature, Smith College (and former VP and Exec Ed, PenguinRandomHouse).
The focus of the letter is the fact that Barrett voted with the majority in the Dobbs decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Barrett has been the singled out in the past due to her judicial philosophy (which is shared by many federal judges and millions of citizens). Her home has been targeted and activists have published school information on her young children.
Recently, Rhodes College alumni sought to strip references to Barrett from the college because they disagree with her views. Her college sorority was even forced to apologize for simply congratulating her for being one of a handful of women to be nominated to the high court.
No attack appears to be beyond the pale for media or the left. Barrett sat through days of such baseless attacks on her character and even had to face attacks referencing her children. Ibram X. Kendi, the director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, claimed that her adoption of two Haitian children raised the image of a “white colonizer” and suggested that the children were little more than props for their mother.
The most striking aspects of these protests is the insistence that these individuals are still faithful to free speech as they seek to silence those with opposing views. The signatories express a common righteous rage to justify censoring others. We have seen this hypocrisy openly displayed by those who want to censor authors or journalists in the name of free speech or the free press.
Writers, editors, commentators, and academics have embraced rising calls for censorship and speech controls, including academics rejecting the very concept of objectivity in journalism in favor of open advocacy.
Columbia Journalism Dean and New Yorker writer Steve Coll has denounced how the First Amendment right to freedom of speech was being “weaponized” to protect disinformation. In an interview with The Stanford Daily, Stanford journalism professor, Ted Glasser, insisted that journalism needed to “free itself from this notion of objectivity to develop a sense of social justice.” He rejected the notion that the journalism is based on objectivity and said that he views “journalists as activists because journalism at its best — and indeed history at its best — is all about morality.” Thus, “Journalists need to be overt and candid advocates for social justice, and it’s hard to do that under the constraints of objectivity.”
An article published in The Atlantic by Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith and University of Arizona law professor Andrew Keane Woods called for Chinese-style censorship of the internet, stating that “in the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong.”
These are professors, writers, and editors who are sawing off the very branch upon which they sit. That would not be a problem but for the fact that they are doing lasting damage not only to free speech but their professions. For a writer to be against free speech is like an athlete being against exercise. It is the defining right for our country and an existential right for writers and academics.
This letter is not simply another manifestation of viewpoint intolerance. It is a statement of virtual self-loathing from people who work in the literary world; writers and editors who cannot abide the publication of opposing views.
The question is whether the companies listed with these signatories (including HarperCollins, Random House Cambridge, Harvard, Michigan Northwestern, and Oxford presses) will issue their own statements that they do not support such censorship and remain committed to publishing a wide array of views on issues like abortion.
As for Justice Barrett, such attacks are unlikely to deter her from ruling according to her long-held and well-established jurisprudential views. She does not deserve such attacks but these individuals are the face of rage in our society. It is the license of rage that can overwhelm every value. It is a general psychosis that overwhelms every countervailing value; it allows writers and editors to oppose free speech and expect us applaud them for it.
It is not that difficult. When it comes to the justices, we have learned to hate the way described by Queen Margaret in Shakespeare’s “Richard III” — “Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were; And he that slew them fouler than he is.”
Reprinted with permission from JonathanTurley.org.