No matter what form of writing you practice, whether you are a memoirist, novelist, poet, essayist or journalist—or you are just beginning your dream of writing and publishing—you need to know and care about publisher Macmillan’s recent stand against Trump.
What happened: If you have not heard, or do not understand exactly what happened, here is a brief synopsis: On January 4, 2018, Donald Trump directed his personal attorney to send a cease-and-desist order to publisher Macmillan’s Henry Holt division, which was preparing to publish author Michael Wolff’s book about the the Trump White House, Fire and Fury. Trump threatened that if the publisher did not halt publication it faced a possible libel lawsuit. In response, Macmillan moved up the publication date of Wolff’s book; its lawyers issued a powerful reply confirming Holt’s right to publish; and Macmillan CEO John Sargent sent a letter to publishing house staff explaining why the company believed publishing Fire and Fury was the right thing to do.
Why it matters for you as a writer: The essence of what Trump tried to do goes to the heart of what is called prior restraint. By first issuing a demand to cease and desist and then threatening a libel suit, the Trump administration was attempting to intimidate the publisher into stopping publication of an “important book on the workings of the government,” as CEO Sargent termed it in his letter to staff. This act of intimidation is an attempt at prior restraint.
Sargent’s letter included three examples from Supreme Court case law that illustrate why no court in the county would order Trump’s prior restraint, because it is blatantly unconstitutional. I include those examples here. They are excerpted from Sargent’s letter:
1) In the Pentagon Papers case, Justice Hugo Black stated in his concurrence: “Both the history and language of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunction, or prior restraint. In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government.”
2) Justice William Brennan’s opinion in The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan: “Thus we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
3) Chief Justice Warren Burger in another landmark case stated: “The thread running through all these cases is that prior restraint on speech and publication are the most serious and least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.”
It is very possible that Donald Trump does not understand the Constitution of the United States—he has called U.S. libel laws “a sham”—but you as writers must understand your rights and responsibilities housed within that document, and if you want to live in a democracy where you can pursue your dream of writing and publishing, you must be informed, and you must demand that the man who lives in the White House inform himself, too.
Either that or give up your dream of writing and publishing in the land of the “free.”