ESTRICH: Drawing the lines in the cancel culture

In January, Simon & Schuster canceled its agreement to publish a book, presumably a memoir-cum-political pandemic, by Sen. Josh Hawley. Recently, in response to internal protests, Simon & Schuster refused to cancel plans for a book by former Vice President Mike Pence.

It drew a line. In this case, it was a line between a rogue senator who spews conspiracies and hate and a former vice president who, when called upon, confirmed the results of the election. Hawley voted to reject them. He was the only member of the United States Senate to oppose a bill that would protect Asian American from hate crimes.

A similar scene played out recently at nonpartisan political organization No Labels after its co-founders hired Mark Halperin as a consultant. In 2017, Halperin was literally canceled — dropped from his role as a television commentator, his book deal and his TV special — after multiple women came forward with allegations that he sexually harassed them during his tenure at ABC News. Halperin has apologized profusely and claims, as did No Labels, that this conduct ended when he left ABC in 2007.

I don’t believe that all speech is created equal. Speech is a powerful weapon. I don’t pretend that the truth always triumphs. If I could control who could speak and who couldn’t, the words “free speech” would disappear from the vocabulary. I would guess that Vladimir Putin feels exactly that way.

Like any civil libertarian, I get stuck on the question of who does the deciding. The first rule is always to assume that you’re NOT making the rest of the rules. In the original position, you could be the one who is canceled.

That is, after all, the argument for the First Amendment. Both Hawley and Pence — and former President Trump, for that matter — have First Amendment rights to free speech, as against any form of state action. But no one has a right to be published by Simon & Schuster. That’s where the decision to cancel, or not, was made.

In law, the people who specialize in drawing the lines are sometimes dismissed as “bologna slicers,” looking for distinctions and differences to create a semblance of order in an area of the law. They write treatises in which lines are created, to be followed by judges and students as black letter law.

But in times like these, bologna slicing might be just what we need. I still wish Al Franken were in the Senate. He was, after all, an entertainer doing an act, for which he was forced to resign — in the blink of an eye, it seemed, without any effort to draw or apply appropriate lines.

Black letter law might very appropriately draw the line at respect for the Constitution and the laws of the United States, at support for the basic civil rights of Asian Americans.

There is a difference between a high official who respects the Constitution and has a story to tell, and a guy who is out there auditioning for the 8 o’clock slot at Fox. The next Tucker Carlson will surely find another publishing home. Simon & Schuster will find another book to publish. But the door will not be closed on the vice president. His case is different. A line has been drawn, and that is worth noting.

As for Mark Halperin, he is very smart. The allegations were very serious. But murderers serve less time than Halperin has in Siberia. It was reported that the co-founders decided to hire him because he was less expensive than other consultants with similar experience. Halperin has also been relegated to cable networks with far smaller audiences. The market has always drawn lines.