Mark Sarvas alerted us to a situation I had not known about: “[Amazon.com] is the only online retailer that continues to offer animal fighting magazines and videos for sale.” Back in February, the Humane Society sued Amazon and other parties over the sale of two magazines and two DVDs that, according to the Society, “depict and promote cruel dogfighting and cockfighting events in violation of federal law.” In response, Amazon deleted the videos from its catalog (although, as critics noted, they’ve done that before, only to have them reappear) but they insisted the magazines enjoy First Amendment protection: “In our mind, freedom of speech is designed to protect unpopular or ugly speech,” said longtime Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith, “and we don’t think customers want us picking what we think is appropriate for them to read. Our stated goal is always to provide customers with the broadest selections possible.”
The Humane Society says the First Amendment defense doesn’t fly, because the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act makes it a felony to sell materials promoting animal fighting. But even if that weren’t the case, I’ve got to admit I’ve got serious misgivings. As a former Amazon “book review editor,” I was present for internal arguments about books dealing with equally controversial subjects, particularly books about pedophile culture. And if you give in on the really blatant “boylove” stuff, the reasoning ran, eventually somebody comes after you for the Jock Sturges and Sally Mann books, so you had to keep the goalposts all the way at the end of the field to keep everything in play, if I can strain a metaphor badly.
On the other hand, the whole “we don’t think customers want us picking what we think is appropriate for them to read” line strikes me as a way to evade taking responsibility for certain decisions—because refusing to stock materials you find morally (or even just aesthetically) objectionable isn’t about choosing “what is appropriate for them to read,” it’s about defining what you choose to help propagate in the world, and of course the First Amendment doesn’t really apply to a publicly held retailer’s decision to carry or not carry a product, anyway. When Amazon really means, then, is something closer to “we don’t want to risk turning away any customer, because the dogfighting enthusiasts and the pedophiles will order mainstream products too,” and they’d rather not have those dollars going to Barnes & Noble. But that, one might argue, is a perfectly reasonable capital-driven decision, perhaps even the only responsible decision a retailer accountable to stockholders could make.
DISCUSS: What do you think? There aren’t any easy answers to this problem, and I certainly don’t pretend to be the final authority…