March 06, 2017

The Milo Debate

A Breitbart News editor, Milo Yiannopoulos, was permanently banned from Twitter last year for “inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse of others.” This extreme step was taken after he made unprovoked racist slurs against Leslie Jones, one of the stars on the new Ghostbuster’s film, and encouraged others to harass her as well. In addition to a number of other highly offensive remarks, Yiannopoulos crossed the line from free speech to hate speech, when he gave a speech on a college campus targeting a transgender student.

In the midst of this controversy, Simon & Schuster, one of our biggest publishers, gave  Yiannopoulos a $250,000 advance in a book deal for his autobiography Dangerous. After inking this book deal, Simon & Schuster came under fire for helping to spread offensive and hateful material. Simon & Schuster maintained it was not signaling agreement with his views but rather exercising its free speech rights.

We champion any publisher’s (and bookseller’s) free speech right to sell any books—even ones that offend basic standards of decency. We will not self-censor constitutionally protected material. Our customers have the right to decide what to read. However, we believe Simon & Schuster’s free speech argument is disingenuous. Instead, the question is whether it has any standards below which it will not promote a work through the use of its powerful publishing franchise. Everyone has a right to freedom of speech, but everyone does not have a right to a platform for that speech, particularly when it is intended to cause harm. Simon & Schuster gave Milo that platform.

After looking closely at the public statements of Yiannopoulos, we concluded that Simon & Schuster was grossly irresponsible. We confronted Simon & Schuster, suggesting it cancel this book deal. It refused, citing its free speech rights which it in effect equated hate speech with free speech.
Our tipping point was the December 13, 2016, speech made by Yiannopoulos to students at the University of Wisconsin. He presented a picture of a transgender student onscreen who had transitioned to a female, named her, and in commenting on the picture, made remarks that were deeply offensive to this private individual, and which targeted her for intense harassment. The student ultimately left the university as a direct result of this harassment.

Referring to this quote, we asked Simon & Schuster whether, in making a decision to publish any given book, it considers the extent to which the author has previously crossed a line of basic human decency. It refused to answer our question, saying that its decision-making process was confidential. We disagreed, saying that it’s decision-making process is very public since it stands by its decision to publish this author, knowing of this hate speech statement that could have no purpose beyond humiliating a private person. We received no response to that observation.

A few days later, a video clip was discovered in which Yiannopoulos said, “…some sexual relationships between 13-year-old boys and adult men and woman are perfectly consensual.” Finally, Simon & Schuster took the action to cancel the book deal. Pedophilia, not hate speech, was where it drew the line.

It probably also had something to do with independent bookstore protests across the country, the Chicago Review of Books decision that it will not review any Simon & Schuster published books for a year, Roxanne Gays’ decision to cancel her book deal, and MobyLives’s well regarded blog.
We think it important that our customers know this story in deciding whether to purchase Simon & Schuster published books. Its authors who are blameless will be affected by a boycott, yet they ultimately are the ones with the most power to force their publisher to eschew authors who promote hate speech. To do what we can to assure Simon & Schuster gets our message concerning hate speech, we will not buy any books from its imprint, Threshold Editions, the imprint under which Yiannopoulos’ book was to be published. We will continue to carry Simon & Schuster books (and will special order Threshold Edition works at your request) since this balancing decision must be yours.