By: Rebecca Slocum
In a year where the United States has seen ever increasing challenges to the First Amendment, we can now add one more: President Donald Trump’s attempt to halt the publication of the new tell-all book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff. Six days before its original publication date of January 9th, a lawyer representing the president sent a cease-and-desist letter to the publisher, Henry Holt & Co., demanding they stop publication of the book. Rather than capitulate to Trump’s demands, they instead moved up the publication date to January 5th.
The cease-and-desist letter threatened legal action if the book was distributed, citing defamation of character and invasion of privacy under New York law. Trump himself tweeted that the book was “phony,” lacking credible sources and misrepresenting the truth.
Fire and Fury certainly does paint a rather unflattering picture of the Trump Administration. However, that picture is no more unflattering than the various portraits created by the press throughout Trump’s first year in office. And while it is true that Wolff’s reporting has been questioned before, the letter from Trump’s attorney does not call out any specific information, situation, or fact in the book as libelous or false. If there is nothing that the president can cite as being inaccurate or defamatory (which, since he likely has not read it, is certainly difficult), then it leads me to believe that he simply does not like it.
Let me repeat that. Trump attempted to halt the publication of a book about him just because he didn’t like it. That, my friends, is censorship. It is a violation of the First Amendment. And it is unconstitutional.
The very basis of our constitution is the ability to say, write, read, and worship as we please without the threat of government interference. Our Constitution begins with “We, the people.” We, the people, are free to challenge our government leaders through the written and spoken word. We, the people, are free to gather together to address and demand changes to our society. And we, the people, are free to access and receive this information regarding our government and its leaders and form our own understandings and ideas.
That includes a book that criticizes our nation’s commander-in-chief.
Now while the First Amendment protects our right to freedom of speech, it does not protect against defamation and libel. Without getting into an intense legal discussion, libel is knowingly printing a false statement that damages a person’s reputation. So if the president follows through with his threat for legal action against Wolff and his publisher, he will have to cite specific information in the book and prove that it is, in fact, inaccurate or false. What is alarming here, though, is Trump’s attempt to stop the book before it is published. It is hard to sue someone for libel when their work is yet to be published and distributed. That is called prior restraint, and the Supreme Court set a precedent against it in the landmark 1931 Near v. Minnesota case.
Had Trump waited for Fire and Fury to be published and then sued Wolff for libel with citation of specific untruths and proof of their inaccuracy, he likely would have experienced a much different situation than the one he created. Instead, his attempt at prior restraint catapulted Fire and Fury to best seller status. On publication day, readers flocked to local bookstores, national booksellers, and the internet to purchase the book. Many booksellers are in fact sold out of print copies. It currently sits at the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, with the Kindle and audiobook version not far behind. Libraries have hold lists of over a hundred.
I think it is safe to say that Americans do not take threats of censorship lightly.
As librarians, we encourage patrons and students to seek out and read banned books. It is important to understand why a certain idea or story is being challenged. Whether we agree or disagree with the content presented, it is the right of the people to discern that for themselves. Fire and Fury is no exception. So order a print copy. Download an e-book. Listen to the audiobook. Or, if you don’t want to spend your book dollars right now, get on that library hold list (I’m currently number 136). Let’s show the president that we’re willing to fight for our constitutional right to freedom of speech. Let’s show him that we resist censorship in all its forms. Let’s show him we support intellectual freedom.
Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last five years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.