In a remarkable lecture by John Sargent in October, The David Pecker Distinguished Professor for 2022-2023 spoke to students in his lecture “Words Matter” about the First Amendment. While there are no laws that prevent publishers from moving forward with a project that may be controversial, there is always the question of ethics and opinion.
During his lecture, Sargent recalled several instances where ethics came to the forefront of the publishing process during his career. Three of his most memorable stories featured Monica’s Story by Andrew Morton, Fortunate Son by James Hatfield, and Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff. In regards to these projects, Sargent said, “I got the feeling of what it might be like to be a publisher in a world without free speech.”
In his experience with both Fire and Fury and Fortunate Son, Sargent faced the wrath of two U.S. presidents. President George H. W. Bush threatened Sargent after Fortunate Son claimed his son, former President George W. Bush, had once been arrested for cocaine usage. The book is still available for purchase.
Similarly, Donald Trump sent Sargent a cease-and-desist letter in 2017 while Michael Wolff was still writing Fire and Fury, a book that explored the truth of Trump’s first nine months as president. Wolff had had extraordinary access to the West Wing of the White House, which he used to his advantage. Trump vehemently opposed the publication of the book, but was unsuccessful in stopping Sargent and Macmillan.
Sargent ended the lecture with a contemplative question: If you disagree with an author, does that give you the right to not publish their book?
Students left the event with a lot to think about. Sargent’s words and experiences provided insights into a world where ethics could matter more than the money a book might make.
This article was co-written by Kaitlyn Keel and Shianne Henion.