Monday, November 29, 2010

The right to not sell a book...

A short while ago, Amazon began selling a book on Pedophilia; not just about pedophilia, but about how to be a pedophile. This, understandably, caused some uproar. But when Amazon removed the book from their virtual shelves, some people cried that it was a violation of free speech. An article in the Vancouver Sun had a few things to say on this situation: "there's a distinction between banning a book and asking a seller to take it off the shelf. A boycott is a market mechanism between sellers and customers. It isn't a form of coercion."

This article argues that the removal of the book is not a form of banning, since it is not trying to get rid of the book from ever existing, but simply a marketing strategy that conforms to the desires of consumers. I have no reason to counter this argument. Personally, I wouldn't want that book on any bookstore shelves at all, but that is not to say that I don't think the author had a right to write the book and get it published. There are differences there.
And, in fact, a positive conception of freedom of speech can lead to some perverse consequences. If everyone has the right to read books on pedophilia (distinct from the right to be protected from a government ban on such books), then they have the right to demand those books from bookstores -- which means someone might have to compel those bookstores to sell them.  
Any attempt to silence unpopular speech, even when it doesn't violate the right to free speech, is counterproductive. Denying someone a platform, in a democratic country with vigorous media, is the best way to make sure they get lots of attention.
Of course, other issues ensued from this debate.  Amazon defended the right to sell the book and defended the rights of those who may buy it, but soon after the book disappeared from the website with no fanfare, no statement, no defense.  They simply went against their policy at the last minute with no explanation.  This behavior from such a large and influential company is in itself rather disturbing.

Do you have any thoughts on the subject?  Do you think there is a distinction here between the right to free speech and the right to purchase literature?  


  1. Amazon is a market-driven corporation organized for the exclusive intent of turning a profit. Their decision not to sell a book is their decision alone and doesn't constitute a commentary on its right to existance.

    Canada has only two legal justifications for censorship: hate-literature and pedophilia. Surely that puts this situation into a different realm--legally and ethically--than parental complaints against, for example, Heather Has Two Mommies?

    While adamantly against book banning and censorship in almost all cases, I think that this text should not be permitted to be published and marketted ACCORDING TO CANADA'S EXISTING LAWS. Neither should Jim Keegstra be permitted to teach that the Holocaust is a media propaganda perpetrated by the Jewish Community for their own ends (see: This case is not about the right to free speech so much as the right to cross the legal lines--or walk closely to the edge; I haven't read the text--that exist in our country.

    Free speech is one thing, but breaking the law is nother. How do organizations such as the North American Man-Boy Love Association manage to avoid the legal machanisms in place for protecting society from those activities deemed to be injurious to society itself?

    A sticky kettle of fish (yes, I know I am mixing metaphors). Free speech is essential BUT there are also laws against certain activities and even the expression of certain ideas (but only those 2)... Is it then acceptable under the guise of free speech to promote and publically admit practicing those activities?

    Then again, homosexuality was illegal once...

    I think I should leave this to the philosophers.

  2. I totally agree, Karyn. I just don't know all that there is to know about these sorts of laws, so I couldn't say. Also, this was and I'm not sure if the mandate is different on I'm sure it would have to be to accommodate laws in each country. This is further complicated by my complete befuzzlement over law in general in the states, what with the multiple levels and federal versus state, etc. If the book breaks a law, then it should not be offered by any means, whether self-published or not. But if the law wherever the guy lives is fuzzy in the least, then I guess he has the right to WRITE the book, though the publishing of it is an entirely different kettle of fish, as you say. Free speech is so incredibly tricky just because it is so open to interpretation in a lot of cases and I'm in no way advocating that this book or any organizations (like the Man-Boy Love Association), but I think it's important to bring them up in order to highlight the differences between free speech, hate literature, obscene literature, etc.

    My mind gets torn considerably in cases like this because I immediately want to reach out and strangle the author, but another part of me wants to weigh all the issues involved and let the laws and policies in place take control of the situation. It's so very sad that we have to struggle so much over where the line should be drawn in such cases as this, but alas, that is humanity, complex and frustrating!