Commentary: The Modern Morality Clause

It’s right there in fine print. A clause in the writer’s contract from Conde Nast, a well-known American mass media company with subsidiaries such as Wired Magazine and Reddit, states that if, “in the company’s sole judgment,” the writer­ “becomes the subject of public disrepute, contempt, complaints or scandals,” it has the right to terminate a contract. This is the morality clause, and it must be stopped.

In recent years, literary magazines, newspapers, and publishers have all come under fire. Media is one of the most common topics of debate, with prominent figures on each side of the aisle coming out to argue the true role of popular media in American politics. With the volatile state of America’s politics, it is those organizations’ responsibility to weed out individuals who have the potential to offend mass groups of people and damage society as a whole with so-called hate speech and offensive literature. As extremely controversial movements such as the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter make their way into modern literature, how should publishers deal with articles and books that argue the other side? Publishers have discovered a clever way to conceal this problem into the morality clause. Whenever a writer offends a group, the publishing company retains the ability to break off all relationships immediately, off of their own judgment. This clause gives all of the power of censorship to companies without violating the First Amendment, as the government plays no role.

Society is already dominated and swayed by a powerful component of modern liberalism: the popular theory that when a large enough group of people feel offended or attacked by writing or speech, they can simply call it hate speech and be done with it. As shocking a revelation this may be, it is how many college and even high school campuses operate. Students are so imbibed with the theory that, by joining safe spaces and publicly condemning controversial literature, they can somehow resolve all of the problems and hate in this country. This social phenomenon has been widely documented, on a varying scale of intensity, on college campuses across the nation. Just three years ago, when Ben Shapiro visited the campus of University of California Berkeley, students rioted and held violent protests, refusing to face and debate a speaker popular among conservatives. Shapiro is known for some triggering speech and political views, but in my firm opinion, his arguments are based on fact and reason, and his overall goal is not to belittle or denigrate any group of people.

The morality clause plays right into this modern liberalist theory. Yes, it may take out the occasional shady character. Yes, it could help remove purposefully controversial material with little to no genuine reasoning or desire for thoughtful discussion. The original and ideal intent of a morality clause would be to protect people, but that is not to say that all, or any at all, legitimate opposing ideas should be disregarded. When the reason for the termination of a writer’s contract is an offensive Tweet or blog post, people have to ask themselves, to what end will America continue to hide? If it isn’t stopped, it may signal the end of an era of healthy, invigorating public discussion, stemming from the late days of the Cold War.

If any writer were to see this clause in their contract, they would definitely think twice about writing that controversial editorial or publishing that unorthodox blog. It’s an extraordinarily chilling effect. Additionally, due to America’s current liberal-centered mentality, the group that would be most affected by this clause would be conservatives. More specifically, white, male conservatives. Any article, column, or editorial with conservative material, material that has been proven certain to offend many modern-day liberals, could easily play into the morality clause, allowing publishers a convenient way of eradicating an entire school of thought. As demonstrated in the past year, with countless prominent men falling to accusations and convictions of sexual harassment and assault, many if not all of those same men, popular TV news hosts and columnists can be terminated, rightfully so, by the morality clause. That is what it was supposedly designed for. I believe that it is what it should be.

But, how far could this morality clause reach, and who would even be there to stop it? When I write here at Phillips Academy, I write with the knowledge that my work will not be censored, and that all students have the equal right and opportunity to communicate their thoughts with the student body. However, the minute I step out of the “Andover Bubble,” and enter the world of “The New York Times,” CNN, and MSNBC, there becomes a drastic shift in the way that readers, and publishers, view and dissect your work. Voices, conversations, and the growth of America as a whole are lost.

It’s not about men or women. It’s not about liberals or conservatives. It’s not even about who is right or wrong. I am standing against the morality clause on behalf of the opportunity for open and mutually beneficial public discussion and debate.

If all it takes to lose a magazine contract or book deal is to write a scathing editorial or a controversial social media post, it won’t be the villains whose voices are lost.