Guest opinion: Bookstores should be allies in the fight for free speech
The U.S. Supreme Court recently affirmed Americans’ constitutional right that the government cannot force businesses to support political causes that violate their moral convictions. The court ruled the First Amendment bars Colorado from forcing a web developer to make designs that include messages with which she disagrees.
Creative companies now have the explicit right to refuse work that violates their conscience. But do some businesses that operate in the world of free speech have a responsibility to support all major political perspectives?
This question isn’t only an intellectual one for Steamboat Institute. Independent bookstores have refused to sell books by speakers at our 15th Annual Freedom Conference in Beaver Creek on Aug. 25-26 because they disagree with our politics.
“Now that I understand what your organization is, I will have to respectfully decline to be the bookseller at your event,” explained one local bookstore in a neighboring county to Eagle whose stance is representative. “Your ideals do not align with mine; in fact, they go directly against everything that I believe in.”
We wanted to sell books authored by high-profile and respected speakers such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Fox News Host Dana Perino, and economist Steve Moore. These aren’t far-right radicals but rather modern-day proponents of a proud American political tradition.
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We would understand bookstores’ refusal if it were a business decision. But we have nearly 400 attendees, many of whom are avid readers, and could guarantee the participating bookstore would do a tidy afternoon of sales. We’d also accept bookstores’ rejection if our organization promoted a fringe topic. For example, we wouldn’t expect many bookstores to show up to a swingers convention!
But America was founded on the battle of political ideas spread by the written word. Bookstores that censor one side are violating this tradition. Just because a bookstore disagrees with the premise of books doesn’t mean they should refuse to sell those books.
Yet censorship seems to be the dominant strategy among today’s left-liberal establishment. Rather than debate ideas, they de-platform. Rather than promote intellectual culture, they opt for cancel culture. And rather than engage with the message, they shoot the messenger. Bookstores that refuse to sell conservative books to a conservative audience are fellow travelers with liberal boycotts of Fox News advertisers and shout-downs of college campus events.
Suppressing speech is not an effective long-term political strategy. It allows perspectives to grow unchallenged. As John Stuart Mill argued, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” Perhaps censorship of conservative thought is growing because many people aren’t able to formulate intellectual responses to conservative positions.
We should all be thankful to live in a country where web developers are not required to create websites for causes they don’t believe in, conservative public policy organizations aren’t forced to promote liberal speakers, and bookstores are not mandated to sell books at events they oppose.
But as a matter of common sense and community responsibility, bookstores should promote robust and open debate about America’s major political traditions and alternatives. More important than the liberal versus conservative public policy battle is the safeguarding and promotion of free speech needed to have this conversation in the first place. Bookstores need to be our allies in the fight against the growing clampdown on political speech.