2017 Literary Gala: John Sargent, PEN Publisher Honoree
Macmillan CEO John Sargent has a long history of advocating for the rights of publishers. After joining Holtzbrinck Publishing Group as the CEO of St. Martin’s Press, Sargent spent many years challenging censorship in various forums. Now the executive vice president of Holtzbrinck and the CEO of Macmillan, Sargent, is venerated throughout the industry as a stalwart of the values and dedication that undergird contemporary American literature. He is the longest-serving officer of the Association of American Publishers, for whom he has spent considerable time and energy lobbying for the publishing industry. A publisher’s publisher, Sargent’s devotion to the right to publish benefits readers of all ages. In addition to his advocacy work in the publishing world, Sargent devotes himself to a variety of causes, serving on the boards of both the New York foster care agency Graham Windham and of the Ocean Conservancy. Below are the remarks Sargent delivered at the 2017 PEN Literary Gala.
John Sargent: Thank you, Andrew. Thank you all for being here tonight. Thanks particularly to all who came because I asked. Special thanks to my colleagues at Macmillan, Erin, Allison, and Bill—thanks for all the hard work.
This is a PEN dinner, so tonight I thought I’d speak briefly about the importance of the First Amendment. For those of us who have to make significant decisions on First Amendment issues, our choices are, by necessity, personal. There is little guidance, and the obligation to follow the amendment is only moral—there is no law to bind us. As publishing becomes more consolidated, and as the retailing of books becomes more consolidated, there are fewer and fewer of us who decide on what to publish, or not to publish, or, very occasionally, what book to pull. We make as individuals each of these decisions, one of us distinct from the others.
I come from a family of book publishers and booksellers, but I grew up on a cattle ranch—one small dot of blue in the vast sea of red that is the Rocky Mountain west. Where I grew up, we had no TV, and the single radio station played The Star-Spangled Banner every day at noon. I rooted hard for Smokin Joe Frazier to beat the gifted Muhammad Ali. And as Vietnam raged, the only question I struggled with was should I join the Army or the Marines? I admired self-reliance, I admired loyalty, and I admired courage.
My late 30s, I was offered a job running St. Martin’s Press. I remember thinking about the First Amendment responsibilities that came with the job. I recalled how demoralized I’d been at Simon & Schuster when the corporate guys pulled American Psycho, and I remembered the great respect I felt when Salman Rushdie and Viking Penguin withstood the onslaught over The Satanic Verses. I think I saw him tonight, I think he’s over there—thank you, Salman.
Intellectually, I considered the possibility of prison or worse, so I got myself a copy of the First Amendment—a copy that still sits in my desk drawer today. Oddly, the words are not very helpful. The bit on freedom of speech and the press goes like this, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” That’s it. It is a mandate to Congress but poses no legal obligation on publishers, writers, or journalists. It doesn’t even define freedom of speech—it simply says that Congress can’t abridge it.
It was only in the early 1800s that the Supreme Court decided it would be up to the courts to interpret the Constitution. Then in the case of an anti-draft document circulated in WWI, the court, in defense of a socialist, defined the clear and present danger standard for free speech. In a KKK case in 1969, it refined the standard. The court found that speech should be protected unless advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent, lawless action. The court also held that it is unconstitutional to impose a heckler’s veto. To quote The New York Times, “the Supreme Court concluded that the government’s responsibility in these circumstances is to control those who threaten violence, rather than to sacrifice the speaker’s First Amendment rights.”
Or, as Justice Brandeis wrote, those who won our independence were committed to the principle that the fitting remedy for evil counsels are good ones. We stand now at a difficult moment. There is a new generation with different sensibilities. There is both a heightened sensitivity and a heightened bellicosity. Even after the famed Skokie decision that allowed Nazis to march, there’s a feeling that any form of hate should not be published, and that authors who offend our common standards—decency—should not be offered a platform.
There is a steady drumbeat asserting that lines should be drawn, that the rising incivility from one side or the other should not be given a megaphone. I see this argument, and emotionally, I agree with it. The last thing I want to do is empower those who would tear down their opponents with deplorable language and behavior, particularly if those they are tearing down share my point of view.
But unfortunately, the very act of drawing a line and making that decision runs counter to our obligations to defend free speech. It also runs afoul of the belief that in a free society it is always better to expose than to censure. We have no responsibility to publish any single book, we as publishers. It is easy and fulfilling to publish books that bolster our own beliefs. It is also easy to say that anyone can self-publish a book these days, so we don’t have to worry about their views reaching the public—someone else will take care of that.
It is easy to feel safe, and it is easy to be safe. But as we face these decisions, I hope we will decide to stand for what is right, not for what is easy. I hope we will apply the principles of the First Amendment and have the courage to resist the great power of polarizing opinion. I hope we are brave, and I hope to be brave. Oleg Sentsov, who we honor tonight, has certainly shown the way—as has PEN, and the work that they do every day of every year. Thank you very much.