June 23, 2020

Federal judge will not block publication of Bolton’s book because “damage is done”


Is that? Do I hear? Is that the sound of good news?

Well, not quite.

Here’s where we’re at. As reported in Publishers Weekly, the Department of Justice motioned for a temporary restraining order on the publication of John Bolton’s memoir, citing its danger to national security. Federal judge, Royce Lamberth rejected their motion, but it was emphatically not decided on the grounds of the First Amendment.

Essentially, the judge just said that seizing and destroying the stock of The Room Where It Happened wouldn’t make any difference at this point since all of the damage that would arise from selling it has already been done: “With hundreds of thousands of copies around the globe—many in newsrooms—the damage is done.” Poor Trump administration… not aware that books go out to media before the on-sale-date…

Lamberth, though, is unequivocally not in Bolton’s camp. He actually spends most of his decision talking about just how wrong Bolton is. He goes on:

Bolton could have sued the government and sought relief in court. Instead, he opted out of the review process before its conclusion. Unilateral fast-tracking carried the benefit of publicity and sales, and the cost of substantial risk exposure. This was Bolton’s bet: If he is right and the book does not contain classified information, he keeps the upside mentioned above; but if he is wrong, he stands to lose his profits from the book deal, exposes himself to criminal liability, and imperils national security. Bolton was wrong

Bolton’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, chose to completely miss this point and put out a statement, saying “We are grateful that the Court has vindicated the strong First Amendment protections against censorship and prior restraint of publication.” I wish there was some sort of infographic that represented how many court cases are actually decided on the First Amendment vs. how many court cases people think are decided on the First Amendment. It almost never is, folks.

The executive director of the Knights First Amendment Institute said as much in a statement: “[T]he ruling is a troubling reaffirmation of broad government power to censor in the name of national security. The prepublication review system puts far too much power in the hands of government censors, and reform of this dysfunctional system is long overdue.”

But it won’t be if Lamberth has anything to do with it. So while you gleefully read about how Trump did crimes and maybe isn’t even very smart (wait, WHAT?!) just don’t tell yourself that judges are sitting on high, letting us do this important work because the First Amendment said so.

All this ruling means is that if you blow straight through the barricades of the government’s review process, there’s not much they can really do to stop it. But it seems certain that somebody is going to pay for it. Not sure exactly how this falls between Bolton and S&S, but now seems like an interesting time to point out that Simon & Schuster is still on sale.



Athena Bryan is an editor at Melville House.