“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
That’s the text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Apparently, it takes a law degree from Yale to understand that the start of the first sentence here really means, “Simon & Schuster shall make no law…”
That at least is what Sen. Josh Hawley would seem to have America believe about his now-former publisher deciding to cancel the Missouri Republican’s book deal after last Wednesday’s violent attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Simon & Schuster cited Hawley’s role “in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom.”
Hawley has since decried the move as “Orwellian” and a “direct assault on the First Amendment.” It’s his right to say those things. But he’s wrong both on the substance of the First Amendment and about Orwell.
The First Amendment, as anyone can read above, prevents Congress from abridging the freedom of speech. It’s a constraint on the government, not private companies like Simon & Schuster. Hawley has a right to free speech, and Simon & Schuster has a right to distance itself from Hawley’s speech and actions. Hawley led the effort to challenge the results of the Nov. 3 election in the Senate, perpetuating the notion that Donald Trump won rather than Joe Biden.
A publisher’s ability and decision not to publish a book from a member of Congress doesn’t fly in the face of the First Amendment; it flows directly from the First Amendment.
Thankfully, it’s not unconstitutional to be wrong, or to be wrong about the Constitution itself. But very smart people like Hawley should not be misrepresenting what the First Amendment does or doesn’t mean. And America should not let their misrepresentations set the parameters of a much-needed national conversation about free speech and censorship.
But no one should lose sight of the fact that these are private companies enforcing their own rules — not the government silencing speech. And no one should forget what the First Amendment actually says: “Congress shall make no law…”
Hawley exercised his right to free speech last week, and there were consequences from a private company that no longer wants to publish his book after last week’s assault on the U.S. Capitol. That decision from Simon & Schuster was an exercise in the First Amendment, not an assault on it.
There’s a growing and dangerous notion that free speech means freedom from any consequences. It doesn’t. No serious person, especially a U.S. senator with an Ivy League law degree who clerked for a Supreme Court justice, should imply that with a straight face.