The NYT reports that Lawrence Wright’s soon-forthcoming book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief is about
the famously litigious Church of Scientology, and he said he has received innumerable threatening letters from lawyers representing the church or some of the celebrities who belong to it. (Transworld, Mr. Wright’s British publisher, recently canceled its plans to publish “Going Clear,” though a spokeswoman insisted that the decision was not made in response to threats from the church.)
Yeah, I bet those threats had nothing to do with it. Wright’s 2006 book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda’s Road to 9/11 merely found its way onto books-of-the-year lists by The Times of London, the Evening Standard, the Economist, the Sunday Times, the Daily Mail, the Sunday Telegraph, the Herald, the Observer, the Guardian and the New Statesman. So, sure, why would a publisher expect Wright’s next book to draw any interest?
British libel law is rightly infamous: see Amanda Craig’s account of her experience, and this piece on how the U.K. has become a destination for “libel tourism.” There’s a fairly high-profile campaign going on to change all that, but it’s hard to be hopeful: British culture today (like that of Canada) sees little value in establishing and maintaining a free-speech culture.
So good for Knopf, Wright’s American publisher, for standing behind the book. American law has stronger free-speech protections than are available in most other countries in the world — at least we do for now — but we are also a highly litigious society, so Knopf is taking some real risks here. I hope the Scientology people don’t try to pressure Knopf into withdrawing the book; but if they do, I hope Scientology gets trounced both in the legal system and in the court of public opinion.