Milo Yiannopoulos Book Sparks Freedom of Speech Controversy

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson14 Comments

The ideas in Simon & Schuster’s forthcoming Milo Yiannopoulos book may not be popular in the publishing community, but does that mean he shouldn’t be published?
By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘Book Publishers: Not Effective Gatekeepers Anymore’
Funny thing about freedom of expression: it’s a lot easier to rally for it when someone is saying what you want to hear. And international book publishing has found itself faced with a wrenching demonstration of this as 2017 opens.

Some in the book industry are questioning Simon & Schuster’s coming publication on March 14 of Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos. A British journalist and the tech editor for far-right Web site Breitbart, Yiannopoulis is a supporter of the alt-right movement in the US. He was permanently banned from Twitter in July 2016 following harassment of actress Leslie Jones.

The initial story by Paul Bond at The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday (December 29) reported that Simon & Schuster paid a $250,000 advance for the book—a figure that has not been confirmed by the publisher and which Bond attributes to “people with knowledge of the situation.”

In comments to Bond about the book, Yiannopoulos said, “They said banning me from Twitter would finish me off. Just as I predicted, the opposite has happened.”

In an interview withAlison Kosik for CNN Money, Yiannopoulos said, “If I crack a few jokes at a Hollywood megastar’s expense, so what?”

“I said the women in [the film] were fat and ugly and ugly and fat.” He then says that his intention was “a message of compassion” about “what messages we’re sending to young girls” about “beauty culture.”

CNN’s story about the book deal quotes a release from Yiannopoulos himself. It refers to his persona as “America’s favorite mischievous gay conservative.” The announcement said that Dangerous will “seek to explain the rise of the ‘populist, nationalist Trump phenomenon,'” and that “readers can expect a string of waspish one-liners and bitchy put-downs.”

Others say they hear something far darker, a damaging voice of the internationally energized extreme right.

‘Many May Disagree Vehemently’

News of the book deal has put Simon & Schuster on the defensive. As Sian Cain reports at The Guardian:

“The news [of the book deal] sparked outrage among those who say Yiannopoulos should not have a platform to share his views. After a coordinated appeal began on 29 December, with instructions on how to call the publisher and individual agents being shared widely online, Simon & Schuster briefly responded to the backlash, asking critics to ‘withhold judgment until they have had a chance to read the actual contents of the book.’

“It later issued a longer statement, saying it does not and never has condoned discrimination or hate speech in any form, that it had ‘always published books by a wide range of authors with greatly varying, and frequently controversial opinions,’ and that ‘while we are cognizant that many may disagree vehemently with the books we publish we note that the opinions expressed therein belong to our authors, and do not reflect either a corporate viewpoint or the views of our employees.”

The statement prepared by Simon & Schuster—like Yiannopoulos’ own attempts to characterize his commentary as naughty-columnist fodder—seems to have done little to reassure the publisher’s detractors.

‘The Circulation of Unpopular Ideas’

Yiannopoulos eagerly became the alt-right’s poster boy during the summer for what many saw as his social-media racist and sexist harassment of Jones on Twitter. He’s a tech editor with Brietbart News, which is linked to the Trump administration by the appointment as senior White House counselor of Stephen K. Bannon, formerly the right-wing Breitbart site’s executive chairman.

When Twitter permanently banned Yiannopoulos, Breitbart’s Ben Kew quoted Yiannopoulos as saying, in part, “Like all acts of the totalitarian regressive left, this will blow up in their faces, netting me more adoring fans. We’re winning the culture war, and Twitter just shot themselves in the foot.”

The Poynter Institute‘s Kelly McBride and Benjamin Mullin discussed the question of such bannings in a Q&A that now has resonance for publishing. In it, Mullin asked, “In your mind, do we need more protection for free speech online? Is the status quo sufficient?”

McBride’s answer is both helpful and, necessarily, unsatisfying:

“Keep in mind that the concept of free speech is meant to allow the circulation of unpopular ideas. I wish we could figure out a way to get more diversity of speech and thought into the elusive marketplace of ideas that has become predominantly digital in nature, without rewarding the loudest and meanest or even the funniest speech.”

The publishing community, on the whole, has so far been critical of Simon & Schuster’s deal, generally condemning Yiannopoulos’ commentary as far more serious than “unpopular ideas.”

In London, The Bookseller’s Lisa Campbell and Charlotte Eyre are reporting that Simon & Schuster UK has said it will not publish Yiannopoulos’ book.

In Publisher’s Lunch, Michael Cader writes that Simon & Schuster’s executive suite may not be the most vulnerable point of complaint: “People looking to exert external pressure on the corporation itself,” he writes, “will eventually figure out that starting at the top by taking on the simpler and more important target of parent company CBS might be the more logical and effective move.”
In fact, Campbell and Eyre quote Simon & Schuster’s CEO, Carolyn Reidy, in her end-of-year message, writing to the staff in a way that now might come across as a warning of what was to come:

“As we head into 2017, we can expect that our civic and cultural life will remain turbulent. In these times it is especially important to remember that as publishers we will always endeavor to give voice to a wide range of opinions and divergent viewpoints. We publish for many different and frequently conflicting audiences, and must be fully cognizant of our responsibility to resist censorship and stand unequivocally for freedom of speech.”

Outside the Big Five publisher, a kind of boycott has been quickly announced by the Chicago Review of Books:

Just as quickly, however, many observers have pointed out that by canceling all reviews of Simon & Schuster content for the year, the Chicago Review will deprive many more authors than Yiannopoulos—and their readers—of deserved attention.

Similar concerns will pertain as a petition goes forward, asking The New York Times and Washington Post to follow the Chicago Review’s lead and decline to review Simon & Schuster books for a year. From the petition’s text:

“One of the internet’s biggest bullies has been given a $250,000 book deal to spew his hate. Let’s tell the world…we don’t want to hear from him. Sign if you want The New York Times and Washington Post to stop reviewing any books published by Simon & Schuster to show them hate speech will not be tolerated in this country.”

Wrestling It to the Ground

Spurred by the question of the Chicago Review boycott, a private list-serv of key professionals in international publishing has been lit up for days by a debate that some might recognize as “the ACLU problem”—a reference to the American Civil Liberties Union’s need at times to defend the freedom of expression of the most unsavory speech and views.

“Keep in mind that the concept of free speech is meant to allow the circulation of unpopular ideas.”Kelly McBride

A few lines from the discussion, without names attached in order to adhere to the privacy policies of the group:

  • “[The fact that] S&S is publishing a book like this makes this particular kind of voice mainstream?—That bothers me greatly. The mere act of publishing this kind of hate and misinformation is not good business. I’m sorry, it’s not.”
  • “We really should not rule out the possibility that the S&S editor thinks Milo has an important story to tell. This may be mission-driven, not financial in its basic impulse.”
  • “Opting to publish this guy is just flatly stupid…I’m not sure how S&S could have been unaware of how toxic this guy is but the problem for them isn’t reader tarnishment but rather author tarnishment…Controversy is better at selling ads than it is at selling books. It’s a different amount of attention in play. S&S appears to have not much upside and a good deal of downside in this transaction.”
  • “I really don’t see a ‘censorship’ issue here. Book publishers are not effective gatekeepers anymore, like they were 20 years ago…They stand at the gate but the fence around the field is down and we’re all grazing wherever the hell we want. This guy can sell lots of books whether S&S helps him or not. The advance level is low enough that you could say S&S is getting the better of the transaction from a purely dollars-and-cents point of view. Already. But that doesn’t make it a smart business decision.”
  • “S&S has asked [us] to wait before judging the work—I say if there’s something earth-shattering and eye-opening that this author has to say, something that might cause me to rethink my position, tell us now.”

For the moment, the most telling element of the controversy may be that Dangerous pre-orders on US Amazon.com at press time are ranking it No. 1 in the categories of Commentary & Opinion and Censorship. It’s ranked No. 2 in Political nonfiction.

As freedom of expression questions are examined, the free market is very much in play.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. Prior to that he was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, a channel at The Bookseller focused on digital publishing. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.

Comments

  1. Simon & Schuster is a publicly traded company. They are in the business of publishing books to make a profit that benefits the company and the share holders. If the book is going to sell then they should publish it. As freedom loving people we must recognize that by censoring information we only create a black market for that information. It does not go away. Like an illness that is masked by medications treating symptoms, the illness will only festers to cause a greater problem in the future. Print it, allow the open discussion of ideas, then make a financial and societal profit from the public discourse.

  2. I haven’t heard anyone advocate censoring, banning or otherwise imposing some kind of ‘authoritarian’ measure on this book. As far as I can see there are two responses:

    (a) consumer and reviewer boycotts
    (b) opprobrium

    Now, it’s pretty rich for anyone on Yiannopoulos’ side of the argument to argue with either of those. He was a prominent figure in Gamergate, whose supporters spent months harassing women in video games, demanding consumer boycotts of publishers and news sites, writing to advertisers, and generally making a nuisance of themselves. He also approvingly reported on a boycott of the musical HAMILTON, when the creators were a bit rude to VP-elect Mike Pence.

    Where was he when his fans were trying (often successfully) to drive women off the internet with vicious, sustained campaigns of abuse? I don’t recall him standing up for their freedom of speech in the vibrant marketplace of ideas that is social media. Instead he sat in the middle of a three-ring circus of degenerate trolls, stirring things up, retweeting bogus memes, and eventually getting himself Twitter-banned for it when the woman his fans went after with disgusting racist abuse turned out to be a bit too famous.

    He incites hatred for a living. That’s literally how he makes money. We’re entitled to express our dismay that a mainstream publisher is enabling this, in any way that we like. I myself don’t think boycotting S&S is a good idea, but please spare us the hand-wringing about ‘freedom of speech’ (a purely governmental concept that has absolutely no application here) and so on. You won’t get the same consideration from the other side when the tables are turned.

  3. This is just the extreme left trying to suppress speech they dislike. Everything that doesn’t support their extremist views is now ‘hate.’ For instance, it is hatred to be a Christian who won’t sit down and shut up regarding their sacred cows.
    Just goes to prove William F. Buckley’s maxim:
    “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.”

    I say this to the whining liberals desiring to suppress free speech:
    Sit down and shut up, your world view is about to take a yuge hit, might as well get used to it.

  4. There’s lots to unpack in this article, but the overarching theme seems to be that only popular ideas, which reflect the “correct” mindset, are acceptable.

    As we’ve seen over the past several years, freedom of speech, assembly, and the press is restricted to the “correct” people; anyone who disagrees will be driven out of the public square (and their jobs, if necessary) for the crime of dissent.

    The heretical idea of letting the public make up their own minds is also ridiculed; how dare the general public think that their opinions matter? They’ll spend their money as we direct, and be thankful, right?

    There’s a reason that I’ve essentially stopped spending money on books from traditional publishers, and this contempt for the customer is reason #1 (reason #2 is publishing “correct” drek). Not sure if I’ll buy this book, but I make the final decision on where my money goes.

  5. This is NOT abour censorship or free speech

    Censorship means suppressing or banning. No one is talking about censoring or banning this guy. No one is saying he can’t express his views anywhere at all.

    It’s about who chooses to give a platform for hate speech.

    Choosing which articles or books a company wants to publish happens all the time, and those choices reflect the company’s values and world view. I’m quite sure that if I wrote an article expressing my own views and submitted it to Brietbart News, they would not accept it – because my views don’t allign with theirs. But that does NOT mean they are censoring me: they are not banning my article, or suppressing it from being published elsewhere.

    For Simon & Schuster to publish this book means they are supporting his hate speech. They are giving it a platform it would otherwise not have. And sure, some other publisher would pick it up – it will certainly be published somewhere, by somebody. But whoever chooses to do that is the one giving the platform for hate speech, and it shows that they are OK with that. So any publisher who does that needs to think very carefully about what they are saying about themselves, and their values. And their attitude to the people and groups that Milo piles his hate on to.

    I think your header and sub-head here are extremely misleading and damaging. This issue is in NO way about free speech or censorship. No one is talking about shutting him up. It’s just about who chooses to give a platform to his views.

    1. Jacqueline… I respect that you have your viewpoint.

      But I don’t agree with it and feel it represents the most reprehensible, self-righteous, holier than thou, hateful and blindly brainwashed, politically correct standpoint at large in the world today. It’s the main reason people in the US voted for Trump, meaning “anyone but Hillary” because she held the same blindly self-righteous view you do. Why would anyone vote for Trump otherwise?

      But despite disagreeing with your hate-filled view, I accept that we still have freedom of speech in the west, and I’ll strongly defend your right to express it. Furthermore I’ll also fight vehemently to protect any entity against any force that tries to stop them from offering you a platform for your view no matter how wrong headed and blind, just because someone like me feels you are making hateful remarks.

      In exactly the same way, you cannot suggest Mr Yiannopoulos should not be given a platform simply because you don’t like what he says. Blocking him from having a platform is identical to banning free speech because a public media platform IS THE CENTRAL AND MOST CRUCIAL ELEMENT OF FREE SPEECH. Blocking that is blocking the individual, and it is laughable to the point of scorn to try to suggest there’s some sort of difference between the two.

  6. Hi Dan –

    Thanks for responding. I’m not sure if you’ve misunderstood me, because I don’t understand how you can see my view as “hate-filled.”

    Just to be clear, I did not say that blocking him from having a platform is what anyone should do – in fact, I said the opposite: that SOMEBODY will undoubtedly give him a platform. But whoever does that is kinda implying that they are OK with those hate-filled views. I would expect that kind of hate speech on a platform like Breitbart, but not from a major, mainstream publisher like Simon & Schuster.

    His book is going to get out, no matter what. My whole point is that this is NOT about censorship – it’s about who chooses to support his nastiness, and what that says about themselves and their values. I’m very disappointed that Simon & Schuster is the one to do that.

    Respectfully,
    Jacqueline

  7. Jacqueline

    It appears you have completely missed (or avoided) the point.

    You say Mr Yiannopoulos uses ‘hate speech’ and therefore should not be published by a ‘respectable’ publisher.

    Where you’re going astray is making the assumption it’s a proven fact he uses ‘hate speech’. It isn’t. Instead the reality is it’s merely your OPINION. It is NOT a fact, no matter how much you want it to be. You may not be aware there’s also people (like me) who think the exact opposite to you. Who says it’s hate speech? You also refer to his words as ‘nastiness’. Who says? By what recognized authority?

    It’s all just your opinion, so the idea that a no ‘respectable’ platform publish him is all smoke and mirrors with no substance, and clearly an attempt to suppress free speech, no matter which way you say it. You can bleat that it’s ‘hate speech’ because faculty X says so, or Mr X says so, or Mrs Y says so, but it’s still all mere OPINION.

    Furthermore, an equal number of people feel the exact opposite to you. They feel that Mr Yiannopoulos is the one being attacked. But they sadly and silently watch haters sticking nasty labels on him. Why do they stay silent? Because they’re in exactly the same position as all the people who wanted to kick the crooked establishment out by voting against Hillary Clinton. But they said nothing because they didn’t want to be labeled, bullied, bashed, kicked, attacked or screamed at by sneering, morally self-rightous, holier than thou, frequently violent ‘liberals’.

    Mrs Clinton was widely labelled as a liar and unfit to govern, and Jacqueline, if your way of doing things had been followed, such a person would have been avoided by ‘respectable’ publishers. But they did not avoid her, because it was all just unproven OPINION. They also believed in free speech and that the public could make up their own minds. (They did.)

    In exactly the same way, Simon and Schuster are standing up for free speech by providing a platform for another individual with a different view. Labeling it as ‘hate speech’ and that no ‘respectable’ publisher should publish him, is unproven, without substance, abhorrent and does not stand up to scrutiny.

    So far, thank the stars, in spite of those like you, freedom of expression still reigns.

    Dan

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