“This isn’t a country where we quash books that the leader finds unpleasant. That’s what tyrants do.”
On August 13, for the second time this year, President Trump’s counsel sent a letter demanding that a publisher cease publication of a book criticizing his presidency. Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Omarosa Manigault-Newman’s book Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House, refused to be cowed by the unsupported allegations that the book contains “confidential information and disparaging statements.” The publisher stated that it “will not be silenced by legal threats grounded in vague allusions.” In January, Henry Holt/Macmillan similarly refused to submit to a cease and desist letter alleging that Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury defamed Trump and instead moved the publication date up. We know how that went—the publicity around Trump’s attempt to quash the book quickly propelled sales and the book went on to become the top best-selling book of the year to date.
So it is surprising and indeed shocking that the White House has thrown out another baseless threat of litigation. Not only is it unseemly for a sitting president to threaten a lawsuit to prevent criticism, but it is a clear violation of the First Amendment. As we said when Trump’s lawyers sent a cease and desist letter to block Fire and Fury, “The ability to criticize the government and its leaders lies at the essence of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech; and threats of libel lawsuits are one of the de facto primary means of curtailing free speech in this country today.”
The Authors Guild firmly stands against the use of frivolous and baseless threats of legal action to prevent publication of a book or to insist that material should be deleted. It is an intimidation tactic of wealthy bullies who think they can use money to silence authors and publishers by cornering them into lawsuits—however baseless—which the authors and publishers may lack the means to defend. To stop this unwarranted attack on speech and defend the right of authors and journalists to write freely and without fear, the Authors Guild has lobbied and litigated against the expansion of invasion of privacy and rights of publicity claims to journalism and books on topics that concern the public, and we have supported anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) laws recently introduced in a number of states to stop the practice of misusing the legal system to muzzle criticism. The Guild’s legal department also regularly counsels members on First Amendment issues and educates authors on their rights with respect to libel laws so they will not be cowed into self-censorship.
While it is bad enough for celebrities and other wealthy individuals to use threats of defamation and related lawsuits to restrain speech, when this kind of stunt emanates from the President, who has a duty to protect the Constitution—and not just once, but twice in one year—it is truly shameful. As Authors Guild President James Gleick has said, “This president cannot stand criticism, and he continues to lash out—against the free press, against his own intelligence community, and now against the publication of a book. He is behaving like a petty despot. This is the second time he has used the power of his office in an attempt to intimidate a book publisher, and we repeat what we said the first time: This isn’t a country where we quash books that the leader finds unpleasant. That’s what tyrants do.”