When the Gatekeepers Abandon Their Posts

July 17, 2020 Updated: July 17, 2020


By now, you might have heard about the Harper’s letter in which 153 well-known, mostly left-leaning writers, artists, and scholars stated their objections to the “forces of illiberalism [that] are gaining strength throughout the world” causing writers with “opposing” or “controversial” views to be shunned, shamed, ostracized, bullied, and fired or forced to resign from their positions.

This letter was followed shortly thereafter by a passionate, eloquent, and sure to be historical resignation letter by Bari Weiss to the New York Times, where she experienced these attacks firsthand as a centrist at a progressive newspaper.

The Authors Guild bills itself as the nation’s oldest and largest professional organization of writers. According to their website, their mission is to support working writers and advocate for free speech, fair contracts, and copyright protection. One of their stated key efforts is to “oppose censorship and lend its support to legislation protecting free speech ….”

For an organization with this mission and these goals, I was surprised to find that, last March, it actively opposed President Donald Trump’s executive order to support free speech on campus. The Authors Guild called it a “largely nonexistent problem.”

Such a response could only be justified by willful blindness, given the threats and loud, offensive, and sometimes violent attacks on conservative speakers on campus, including Heather Mac Donald, Michael Knowles, Ben Shapiro, Kathleen Parker, and any speaker from the government of Israel or anyone speaking in favor of Israel.

In fact, the complete disregard of the Authors Guild’s own mission in deference to its politics was on full display when, as a signatory of a statement by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) about the executive order, of which “the specific provisions … have not been revealed,” it agreed with the quoted AAUP’s reaction to proposed 2017 state legislation on campus speech, that said, “We oppose, however, any legislation that interferes with the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities by undermining the role of faculty, administration, and governing boards in institutional decision-making and the role of students in the formulation and application of institutional policies affecting student affairs.”

Let me parse that. Although the Authors Guild didn’t actually know what the executive order stated, it objected to it because other issues suddenly took priority over one of its stated highest issues. Obviously, the Authors Guild will readily abandon its mission for the sake of politics.

At the time of President Trump’s executive order, I posted a question about it on the Authors Guild member’s discussion forum.

While a couple of writers supported the order, I mostly got responses about how free speech only pertained to the government. One writer posted, “There is no such thing as ‘freedom of speech for private institutions.’” Another writer stated that Trump’s executive order forces schools to host any “odious, racist, xenophobe, [otherwise] the federal government can withhold totally unrelated cancer research funds.”

Another comment was, “If a speaker is popular, he or she will have an audience. No organization — school or otherwise — should be forced to host someone who doesn’t draw the audience and sell tickets. It’s capitalism. Deal with it.”

And another said that for certain speakers with controversial views, any attempt to censor them, including by violence, is a righteous goal.

Keep in mind that these are writers who you’d think would value the right to free expression above all others. They should know that while the First Amendment codifies the government’s requirement of upholding free speech, it should not be conflated with the concept of free speech, a principle of human liberty to which all people and institutions should aspire. They should understand that this principle was promoted by our Founding Fathers not only to stop the government from squelching “traitorous” opinions, but also to encourage a society that succeeds by giving each individual, and especially those in the minority, a voice for unpopular opinions.

When the Harper’s letter was published, I again asked for comments on the Authors Guild forum. While a few people supported the letter, most objected to it. This amazed me. The most common response was represented by this one: “Free speech is the ability to speak. Not the ability to speak without consequences.” Also, “The last few years there seems to have developed a strange idea – that the First Amendment entitles everyone to express their opinion, in a public forum, with no consequences or even criticism, no matter how noxious or dangerous or abusive, and even get paid for it.”

Let me parse this response, too. The Harper’s letter was about free speech and the dangers to society of censorship.  It was not about any other issue. It was not about politics. It was not about any of the crises that our world is currently addressing. It was not about foreign policy or race relations or protests or police brutality or rioting or a global pandemic.

By attacking the Harper’s letter, the Authors Guild members said that supporting free speech should have consequences. Think about that, because it’s a very dangerous thing. Either they don’t understand the principle of free speech and how it protects each of them, or, more likely, they understand it but want to deny its protection to anyone who disagrees with them, which is a hideous corruption of this important principle for freedom.

Not to be outdone, 160 writers (including 23 anonymous “unsigned” signers) recently penned a response to the Harper’s letter that rebuked the writers of the first letter. The writers on the Authors Guild forum might be a non-representative group—successful writers are often too busy to post on discussion lists—but this new letter was written by well-known or well-established writers.

Their main objection to the first Harper’s letter is that many of those authors are “white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms.” In other words, they believe that freedom of speech is only for certain kinds of people, not others. Some writers are more equal than others. This should frighten us.

You’d think that the Authors Guild would issue a statement at this critical time regarding the letters to Harper’s. But they haven’t. I emailed Authors Guild Executive Director Mary Rasenberger but received no response.

When the gatekeepers abandon their posts, they have either become complacent and blind to the threat without, or they are planning their own attack from within. Either way, the barbarians win.

Bob Zeidman has a Bachelor of Art and a Bachelor of Science from Cornell University. He is an inventor and the founder of successful high-tech Silicon Valley firms including Zeidman Consulting and Software Analysis and Forensic Engineering. He also writes novels; his latest is the political satire “Good Intentions.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.