Free Speech, Censorship Petitions, and Book Burning

Above: The original 1787 manuscript of the United States Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791.

by Jim Denney
author of Your Writing Mentor C. S. Lewis

I recently learned of a petition, signed by hundreds of people calling themselves “members of the writing, publishing, and broader literary community” who “care deeply about freedom of speech.” So far, so good. I’m a big advocate of First Amendment freedoms myself. I’m sure you are, too.

But then the petition goes on to call for a certain book and author to be cancelled. The petitioners claim, “We cannot stand idly by while our industry misuses free speech to destroy our rights.”

Hold it right there! How can you say you “care deeply” about free speech—then complain that someone “misuses” free speech by speaking or publishing a viewpoint you dislike? The word free in “free speech” means that no one else gets to decide how I use (or “misuse”) my speech. How I use my speech is 100 percent my call.

The publication of the book in question would not destroy anyone’s rights. That’s a specious rationalization. Fact is, none of the petition signers have any idea what’s in the book, because it hasn’t been written yet.

The petitioners state, “We are not calling for censorship.” Yet the point of their petition is to demand that a publisher cancel a book deal and deplatform an author. If that’s not censorship, what is?

I’m not going to say who the author is or what the book is supposedly about. If you want to know, I’m sure you can google it easily enough. I don’t care about the politics of the author or the politics of the petitioners. What’s at stake here is a vital and transcendent principle—the principle of free speech.

I’ve seen attacks on our First Amendment freedoms from both the Left and Right. To me, viewpoint censorship is always wrong, no matter who is doing it. All attempts to silence political, religious, and philosophical viewpoints are wrong-headed and a violation of our American freedoms.

Many people mistakenly think that only governments can censor. But censorship is the suppression of speech or public communication, whether it is conducted by governments or private institutions or an Internet petition. It’s the next-worst thing to book-burning.

The suppression and destruction of authors and their books has always been a weapon of repression. In 213 BC, the newly crowned Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the torching of books so that he would not be compared to rulers of the past. The Great Library of Alexandria and its manuscripts were burned several times, including a partial destruction when Julius Caesar laid siege to Alexandria in 48 BC and a complete destruction when Caliph Omar invaded the city in AD 642. British troops vengefully torched the United States Library of Congress during the War of 1812. Book-burning was a major feature of Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jewish people and their contributions to society. Book-burning was also a central strategy employed by Mao in the murderous “Cultural Revolution” of 1966 through 1976.

Book-burning is always a detestable act. But I submit to you that suppressing a book before it’s published may, in fact, be far worse than burning it after it’s published. It would be impossible in today’s world for book-burners to incinerate every copy of a book once it’s published. But a censorship petition seeks to suppress ideas before they reach the printing press.

No matter what our politics, we should resist the censorship of information and ideas in any form. Anyone who tries to suppress speech, deplatform an author, or pressure a publisher into canceling a book is like a villain straight out of Fahrenheit 451.

Are there forms of speech that are not and should not be protected? Yes, absolutely! Speech that threatens violence or incites people to lawlessness is indefensible. Speech that defames and unjustly destroys reputations is indefensible. Speech that harms or undermines the innocence of children is indefensible.

You may ask, “What about the people who signed that petition? Do they have a First Amendment right to try to cancel an author?” My answer: Yes, absolutely! And I will defend their right to do so, even as I disagree with them and criticize them for it. A petition is free speech, and the signers of the petition should be free to post their wrong-headed notions on the Internet.

In a free society, we need more speech, not less. We need arguments. We need counterarguments. We need bad ideas that will lead to better ideas. We need to hear ideas we don’t want to hear. We need information and history lessons and discussions and understanding. We need to listen and we need to speak. We need freedom, not censorship.

The petitioners call themselves “members of the writing, publishing, and broader literary community.” I saw a lot of booksellers, publicists, and librarians—and yes, a few who listed themselves as authors. But I didn’t see any signers of the stature of, say, Stephen King or Margaret Atwood on that petition. There’s good reason for that. Professional writers know how dangerous censorship is to their own creative freedom.

The First Amendment was written specifically to protect unpopular speech, speech that is in danger of being suppressed. It’s precisely the speech that sparks anger and controversy that must be defended. Speech that offends no one needs no protection. 

The freedom to write and publish our ideas is part of our uniquely American heritage. We all have a duty to protect freedom of speech, including the speech of people with whom we disagree.

Here are a few lines from “America Has a Free Speech Problem,” New York Times Editorial Board, March 18, 2022:

“For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.

“This social silencing, this depluralizing of America, has been evident for years, but dealing with it stirs yet more fear. It feels like a third rail, dangerous. For a strong nation and open society, that is dangerous.”

America does have a free speech problem. The freedom to write and publish is fragile, and it is under assault. Use it. Value it. And above all, defend it.

4 thoughts on “Free Speech, Censorship Petitions, and Book Burning

  1. Wow! What a wonderful article. You totally covered the problem with our loss of free speech. I totally agree! Our job is not to stop others from talking, but to be so overwhelming with our evidence that we convince them to accept our ideas. And if they do not, we peacefully agree to disagree. We will never convince everyone to see our side, but freedom is the right to try. To converse. To grow. That is true freedom. Thank you so much for this article!

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  2. Thanks for those thoughts! Yes, the answer to bad ideas should always be more and better ideas. I’m hoping that this issue is a swinging pendulum in our society, not a slide into the abyss. It all depends on people like you and me speaking up! So thanks for being a voice for freedom. J.D.

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  3. Well expressed Jim. Now all that has to happen is to get the people who need to read it to read it. No more difficult than, say, putting toothpaste back in a tube. Sigh.

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    1. Thanks, Steve! I often used to hear a quote by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (usually misattributed to Voltaire): “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I hardly ever hear it quoted anymore. I’m hoping it makes a comeback. J.D.

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