Morality Clauses: What They Mean and How They’re Applied

This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Ann-Marie Cahill


Ann-Marie Cahill will read anything and everything. From novels to trading cards to the inside of CD covers (they’re still a thing, right?). A good day is when her kids bring notes home from school. A bad day is when she has to pry a book from her kids’ hands. And then realizes where they get it from. The only thing Ann-Marie loves more than reading is travelling. She has expensive hobbies.

Social media is often blamed for giving a platform for hatred and negativity. Personally, I don’t think social media is the sole problem here; it’s not like the hatred and negativity writes itself. Social media platforms merely make it easier for people to say things out loud, sometimes to an echo chamber to feed their ignorance and hate. If someone is going to say something horrible via social media or otherwise, they should be held accountable for it.

The good news is many companies are enforcing this accountability, with one of the most controversial measures in the literature and entertainment industries: Morality Clauses.

What is a ‘Morality Clause’?

A Morality Clauses (AKA Morals Clause) is a convenient exit for when a contractor or employee damages a company reputation. The purpose of morality clauses is to manage or guarantee the image of one party meets the expectations of another. You may have heard a lot more about morality clauses since the #MeToo movement gained traction, with good reason. However, these clauses have been around for almost 100 years. It started with Universal Studios and the arrest of their then-newest star, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Although ultimately acquitted of rape and murder charges, public opinion cast a heavy shadow over Arbuckle, his career, and subsequently, Universal Studios’ investment.

Since then, the majority of Morality Clauses have been focused on those who are most prominent in the public eye, including but not limited to actors. Over time, these clauses have found their way into other contractual relationships; you may even have one for your general employment. It is may look like this:

“The contractor shall not commit any act or do anything which might tend to bring them or the Company into disrepute, contempt, or scandal which reflects negatively on the Company and the Company’s reputation.”

In common speak: if you say or do something that makes us look bad by relation, then we don’t want to touch you with a 10-foot barge pole.

A large chunk of the criticism for these clauses comes from what is considered the ‘Trial by Twitter’ and the subjective interpretation of morality. What constitutes a question of morality is left beholden to the reaction of the public and the impact on the companies reputation. If you didn’t have the social clout, then your views or actions didn’t seem to matter. Social media has expanded the circle of influence to other industries, including authors.

Let’s See Morality Clauses in Action

Recently, the Australian division of Pan Macmillan carved a definitive line in the sand against anyone who supports neo-Nazi views. Although it didn’t go into detail as to how, Pan Macmillan ended its contractual relationship with one of Australia’s chief conspiracy theorists and celebrity chef Pete Evans. Its action followed almost immediately after he shared a cartoon on social media depicting MAGA and a symbol known as “Black Sun”.

This symbol was previously seen in the manifesto of the New Zealand/Christchurch gunman. The same cartoon was also shared recently on neo-nazi websites. It features a caterpillar wearing a MAGA cap and a butterfly with the Black Sun symbol on its wings.

The publisher, Pan Macmillan, was the first to respond.

Dymocks, one of Australia’s largest book retailer chains, was equally quick to respond. Within an hour, it replied to Pan Macmillan with a “yes, thank you” and pulled all of Evan’s books from retail. Many more retailers continued the same response, including Big W, Coles, and Booktopia.

Can Publishers Simply Cancel Contracts Like That?

They most certainly can. But let’s be honest about one thing here: this is all about the money. There are plenty of books published purely for the fact they gain enough public attention to sell—quantity over quality.

Being a book does not guarantee a high quality of writing. There was a time when having a book published meant something special. It was a sign of status and integrity. Even in the age of social media and digital publications, having your work published on paper was once perceived as the ultimate vote of confidence in your ability to write.

Unfortunately, there are books commissioned purely because of the scandal associated with the writer and their story. Some of those contracts are also cancelled when the publishing company suddenly realise, “Oh crap. They took another step and went there.”

The List of Shame

Evans is not the first to be ditched by his publishers. In most cases, it is less about the cancelling of contracts and more of “we won’t be continuing this relationship”. It is fair to note the subjectivity exercised by publishing companies when deciding whether to act on their Morality Clauses. For example, Simon & Schuster dropped Milo Yiannopoulos after making comments on his podcast which appeared to condone paedophilia.

Another example is Gareth Roberts, dumped from Ebury’s Doctor Who anthology because of transphobic tweets. One of the co-authors previously expressed concern for being associated with him, telling BBC News “being involved felt like a tacit endorsement of his views.” On the other hand, she-who-won’t-be-named continues to have her books published and promoted, despite her transphobic views.

Writers are also able to enforce Morality Clauses and dump questionable publishing companies. In March 2020, Ronan Farrow cut ties with Hachette after they had acquired the rights for Woody Allen’s memoir.

The standout feature from the Pete Evans situation is the quick and decisive response from Australia’s publishing community. There are some who point to his history and ask why it took so long to act. Unfortunately, the world of publishing contracts can be a difficult area to navigate. We should, however, acknowledge when a large publishing company does stand up and say “No More”. Pan Macmillan had a quick response and encouraged others to do the same. This is not a question of censorship; this is a statement of whether you stand with or against people who promote these views filled with hate, negativity, and abuse towards others.

Suggestion: What To Do Next

It looks like Pan Macmillan has some room on the shelf for other lifestyle authors. If you’re going to make a statement about public image and social values, then don’t hold back. Bring on some fresh faces and support more diversity. We can definitely do better than Pete Evans.

Clarence Slockee is an Indigenous Australian from the Bundjalung Nation. Slockee is a presenter on ABC Australia’s Gardening Australia, sharing his extensive knowledge of plants, landscaping, and indigenous cooking. His understanding of nature and indigenous food would be a breath of fresh air in the gardening and lifestyle section.

new lifestyle cooking book

Mark Olive’s Outback Cafe: A Taste of Australia

Mark Olive is an Indigenous Australian chef, and also from the Bundjalung Nation. When you have a cooking book proclaiming to be for a particular nation, you want the food AND the book to capture everything you feel about that nation. Olive has found amazing ways to combine his knowledge of bush foods with international cuisine to create recipes that don’t scare me as much as the rest of the country. #straya

Rayleen Brown is a Ngangiwumirr and Eastern Arrernte woman who built her own Indigenous catering business on her family traditions and homestyle cooking. She is all about sharing this knowledge with everyone! Brown could fill volumes of books with her passion for native ingredients and amazing history. Brown and her business partner, Gina Smith, have worked with many Indigenous communities, preparing amazing food using only wild harvest bush tucker sourced by the women who gather it. I can only imagine the stories she can tell about community gardening with indigenous plants and practices. Take my money!

There are already enough platforms available for those promoting hate speech and negativity. Let’s encourage the publishing companies to enforce their morality code and replace the toxic sludge with more supportive reading.