English PEN has said Milo Yiannopoulos' right to freedom of expression must be respected, amid the furore surrounding the far-right editor's lucrative book deal with Simon & Schuster US.
"Offensive ideas should be debunked and discredited, not censored," said Robert Sharp, head of campaigns and communications for the free speech organisation. He added that demands for S&S US to cancel the deal were tantamount to "censorship".
"The right of Mr Yiannopoulos to write and to offend is integral to the principle of freedom of expression," said Sharp. "Likewise, Simon & Schuster US has the right to make an editorial judgment over whether to publish his book. Demanding that the publisher cancels the book deal amounts to a call for censorship, and should be resisted."
British Yiannopoulos is an editor at Breitbart News based in the US, known as a publisher of “alt-right” articles, and was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump in the run-up to the presidential elections. He was banned from Twitter for the racist trolling of Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones, reportedly received a $250,000 advance from S&S US for his book Dangerous, according to the Hollywood Reporter. It will be published by Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster US in March 2017, but there are no plans for the UK arm to publish it, The Bookseller reported last week.
Sharp emphasised the difference between criticism of the deal and calls for the book deal to be reversed. The latter, he argued, would set a terrible example to authoritarian governments.
"However, we must remember not everyone expressing dismay is asking for the book deal to be reversed," said Sharp. "Many have simply expressed a negative opinion about Mr Yiannopolous writing and politics. Outrage is not in itself a form of censorship - it is also a manifestation of free speech.
"PEN campaigns for the victims of censorship in many countries around the world. Often, the people we seek to support have been branded as 'dangerous' or corrupting to society. If we seek to silence people like Milo Yiannopolous on the same grounds, then we set a terrible example to more authoritarian governments.
"Anyone angered by this decision should use their own free speech to counter the ideas they disagree with. Offensive ideas should be debunked and discredited, not censored."
Sharp's comments follow hot on the heels of a statement signed by freedom of expression organisations Index on Censorship and the National Coalition Against Censorship saying silencing Yiannopulos could have a "chilling effect" on authors and publishing. It urged: "The suppression of noxious ideas does not defeat them; only vigorous disagreement can counter toxic speech effectively. Shutting down the conversation may temporarily silence disfavored views, but does nothing to prevent them from spreading and resurfacing in other ways."
Author J K Rowling last year defended Donald Trump's right to come to the UK and "be offensive and bigoted there", following the same line of reasoning as English PEN, after a petition to ban his visit gathered thousands of signatures. "If you seek the removal of freedoms from an opponent simply on the grounds that they have offended you, you have crossed a line to stand alongside tyrants who imprison, torture and kill on exactly the same justifications,” Rowling said.