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ABFE Free Speech Report

ABFE Free Speech Report, vol. 3, no. 1, February 2017

ABA Supports Freedom to Publish Controversial Books

The American Booksellers Association has recently joined two statements supporting publishers that are under fire for issuing controversial books.

In December, Bad Little Children’s Books, which parodies the sunny covers of an older generation of children’s books, came under fire from critics who complained that two of the 120 covers were racist because they portray Native Americans and Muslims negatively. ABA joined a National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) statement urging the publisher, Abrams, not to withdraw the book. However, following a wave of criticism on the Internet, the author, who published under a pseudonym, asked Abrams to stop selling it. Abrams agreed not to print additional copies but continued selling it.

In January, Threshold Edition, a Simon & Schuster imprint, touched off an even bigger controversy by buying a book from right-wing firebrand Milos Yiannopoulos, who has been accused of engaging in hate speech. The Chicago Review of Books protested the signing by announcing that it would not review any Simon & Schuster books for the next year, and The Booksmith bookstore in San Francisco declared that it would cut its purchases of Simon & Schuster titles by 50 percent and contribute the profits from the sale of the publisher’s other books to the ACLU.

Simon & Schuster was also strongly criticized by many in the publishing industry, including 160 of its children’s authors and illustrators who protested in a letter to Carolyn Reidy, the president and chief executive officer of Simon & Schuster. The book is scheduled for publication on June 13.

ABA joined a statement by NCAC that opposed a boycott of Simon & Schuster. While acknowledging that boycotts are a form of speech that is protected by the First Amendment, the statement warned that efforts to damage a publisher with economic sanctions could have a chilling effect, limiting its ability to publish controversial works. The statement was also signed by the Association of American Publishers, Authors Guild, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Freedom to Read Foundation, Index on Censorship, and the National Council of Teachers of English. Dennis Johnson, publisher of Melville House, rejected this criticism and accused the statement signers of trying to stifle legitimate criticism.

ABFE Defends Bookseller’s Anti-Trump Banner

In the waning days of the presidential campaign, a bookstore in a small town in upstate New York challenged officials who were trying to force him to remove from his front window an anti-Trump banner that included a swastika. Brian Donoghue, owner of the Inquiring Minds Bookstore in Saugerties, had hung the banner in a window with books to draw parallels between aspects of the Trump campaign and the rise of the Nazis. The zoning inspector issued two notices of violation of the town sign ordinance and ordered Donoghue to remove the banner.

Donoghue contacted American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE), which put him in touch with lawyers for Media Coalition, a trade association that defends the free speech rights of booksellers and other producers and distributors of material that is protected by the First Amendment. After Media Coalition warned town officials that their order violated the First Amendment, they withdrew the violation notices. Donoghue reflected on the controversy in a column in Bookselling This Week.

Help Wanted: the ABFE Open Discussion Project

ABFE is asking booksellers to help bring Americans together to discuss the issues that deeply divide us. It is planning to launch the Open Discussion Project to give booksellers the tools to engage people from across the political spectrum in conversation. As a first step, ABFE is asking booksellers to help create reading lists on several issues — race, class, immigration, the problems faced by the LGBTQ community, and climate change. The lists will be limited to 25 titles of proven editorial excellence and will include books that represent the diversity of opinion on their subjects. Booksellers who are interested in volunteering to help curate the lists are asked to e-mail Finan at

Support the Hong Kong Booksellers!

Bookstores can now order a T-shirt created by ABFE as part of an international effort to force China to release Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai. An author and co-owner of Causeway Bay Bookstore, Gui Minhai is the last of five booksellers arrested by the Chinese government for publishing and selling gossipy and sometimes sensationalistic books about Chinese leaders. The front of the shirt bears Chinese characters demanding Gui Minhai’s release. The back reads, “American independent bookstores and readers for the release of Gui Minhai.” Profits will be donated to Free Gui Minhai, a campaign organized by Gui’s daughter, Angela.

Individual shirts can be purchased online for $20 with free shipping. For orders of 12 or more, the price is $8.50 per shirt; for orders of 72 or more, the cost goes down to $6.50 per shirt. Shipping and customization, including the addition of a store logo, is free.

Booksellers Encourage Tolerance as Political Strife Grows

In his latest “Free Speech” column, ABFE Director Chris Finan writes about the role that booksellers are playing in encouraging debate at a time when intolerance for opposing opinions appears to be growing. Two North Carolina bookstores, the Regulator Bookshop in Durham and Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh, have held highly successful community forums on race and diversity.

The American Booksellers for Free Expression, a program of the American Booksellers Association, is the bookseller's voice in the fight against censorship. Please visit our resources page for information about how booksellers can prepare for a variety of free speech emergencies or email In a crisis, call me, ABFE Director Chris Finan, at (917) 509-0340.
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