Free Speech, Amazon and Your Community

Culture, Family Issues, On Conservatism, Rights Reason & Religion, Worldviews — By on December 13, 2010 at 6:44 am

In the name of supporting freedom of expression and consumer choice, Amazon made a controversial book available for sale to Kindle users: “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct.” According to an MSNBC news article, the book offers “advice to pedophiles afraid of becoming the center of retaliation.” According to the author, his work is (misspellings his own) his “attempt to make pedophile situations safer for those juveniles that find themselves involved in them, by establishing certian rules for these adults to follow.”

The reviews on the book’s page reflected the outrage of many of Amazon’s patrons, to whom Amazon defended their choice to sell the book. Responding that “it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable…we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions.”

The purpose of free speech

Amazon is correct in that they do have the freedom to publish such material. But does that mean they should?

When it was included in the Bill of Rights, free speech was not designated arbitrarily. It was included to protect an individual’s rights from being trampled by the federal government—not to give the individual permission to do whatever he wanted. Freedom of speech is foundational to all other freedoms because it preserves space for dissent, for ideas and opinions to be heard—but it is not freedom to say whatever you want. It is freedom to pursue truth.

In order for truth to surface in public dialogue, there must be public space for a free exchange of ideas. Wendell Berry, in his essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community” argues that freedom exists because people will disagree, and that freedom is “a way of guaranteeing to individuals and to political bodies the right to be different from one another.”

Notice that Berry does not say that free speech is protected for the purpose of doing what we want—it exists for the good of society. Because freedom is not the license to do whatever we please, our individual freedoms come with corresponding duties to our communities. In the case of this book, Amazon is the private individual and the community is all the families that shop Amazon.com.

Why Amazon was right to remove the book

After a few days, Amazon removed the book from its site, presumably because of the public outcry and threats of boycott. And they were right to do so. Respect for the community should not be taken lightly. According to Barry, only the sphere of community can mediate between public and private interests.

Community “identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests”—namely, virtues such as trust, temperance, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness. In order for communities to flourish, they must encourage these virtues. Properly functioning communities will “invariably, not as a rule . . . enforce decency without litigation.”

Absent this idea of community, where decency is encouraged, “private” comes to mean an area which individuals defend as space for doing what they please, even if this includes limiting or destroying the rights of others. The community alone has the power to influence behavior by dictating “what works and what does not work in a given place.” Only a community can determine for itself what is good and what is harmful.

Community has an interest in being able to protect itself. And for the sake of freedom of speech, the public ought to let it. But free speech is not an absolute right. It only exists as people concur that it should. Says Berry, “One person alone cannot uphold the freedom of speech…[It] is a public absolute, and it can remain absolute only so long as a sufficient segment of the public believes that it is and consents to uphold it. It is an absolute that can be destroyed by public opinion…If this freedom is abused and if a sufficient segment of the public becomes sufficiently resentful of the abuses, then the freedom will be revoked. It is a freedom, therefore, that depends directly on responsibility. And so the First Amendment alone is not a sufficient guarantee of the freedom of speech (emphasis added).

The standards of a community ought to be considered because the community is a part of “the people” whose support is necessary to uphold free speech as a right. This is why it is not right for Amazon to ignore the opinions of the community in the name of free speech alone.

Amazon is correct: individuals do have the right to make their own purchasing decisions. However, when the community complains, Amazon ought to listen.  Communities are rightfully interested in their own self-preservation, and this includes upholding some sort of moral standard. Where public laws exist to bind the government to a particular arena, communities exist to uphold morality and decency, and to tell people how they ought to live. The government should not do this, and an individual alone cannot. Therefore, we must rely on the community to be the mediating pathway in many areas. If a community determines that it ought to uphold certain standards of decency, the public sphere ought to listen. If free speech exists only because the majority of people support it, individuals should not destroy that which allows the community to flourish with their freedom– lest they lose it.

Finally, it is right that the government not control what books Amazon sells. It is dangerous when the government involves itself in our ability to freely exchange ideas. Yes, “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct” is offensive. However, the government should not make a law, and it will not have to, if the community is allowed to function properly. Decency will be encouraged, and there will be no desire—or need—for litigation.



  • Lindsay Stallones

    I find Amazon’s defense and argument in this case fascinating in light of its recent reverse position on Wikileaks (and subsequent decision to sell Wikileaks cables on its Kindle).

    I’m interested, though, in the limits of your argument about the government’s duty here. At what point should the government intervene if the community will not? Or if a company like Amazon decides to censor customer feedback? Couldn’t this book be considered incitement, and therefore disqualify the author for the right of free speech and Amazon for the right to distribute it?

  • Benjamin

    Well this is a well-written article, but you’re basing most of it on a faulty assumption. In your fourth paragraph, you state that “Freedom of speech… is not freedom to say whatever you want. It is freedom to pursue truth.”

    It um… it IS freedom to say whatever you want, actually. That’s why it’s freedom of speech, not freedom of truth pursuit. The amendment which guarantees it states that congress “shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech” not, as you seem to infer, “shall make laws abridging the freedom of speech to matters concerning the pursuit of truth unless offensive to a large population”. That’s actually sort of the exact opposite of the system we have in place here. Wendell Berry, venerable though he is, was not at the Constitutional Convention and did not author the first amendment. And even if he had, I don’t think his version would have been ratified by the founders of a free and open society, as the entire reason we have a constitution and indeed a government in the first place is so that majority opinion doesn’t dictate every aspect of our lives and freedoms.

    Now, Amazon isn’t a governmental body, so this doesn’t mean that they couldn’t do what they did or even necessarily that they were wrong to do so, but I just feel the need to point out that you’re making some baseless and fairly dangerous assumptions. Unless, of course, you agree that women should be stoned to death for not wearing burkas, which is lest we forget seen as indecent by the majority of people in their community.

  • Benjamin

    Well this is a well-written article, but you’re basing most of it on a faulty assumption. In your fourth paragraph, you state that “Freedom of speech… is not freedom to say whatever you want. It is freedom to pursue truth.”

    It um… it IS freedom to say whatever you want, actually. That’s why it’s freedom of speech, not freedom of truth pursuit. The amendment which guarantees it states that congress “shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech” not, as you seem to infer, “shall make laws abridging the freedom of speech to matters concerning the pursuit of truth unless offensive to a large population”. That’s actually sort of the exact opposite of the system we have in place here. Wendell Berry, venerable though he is, was not at the Constitutional Convention and did not author the first amendment. And even if he had, I don’t think his version would have been ratified by the founders of a free and open society, as the entire reason we have a constitution and indeed a government in the first place is so that majority opinion doesn’t dictate every aspect of our lives and freedoms.

    Now, Amazon isn’t a governmental body, so this doesn’t mean that they couldn’t do what they did or even necessarily that they were wrong to do so, but I just feel the need to point out that you’re making some baseless and fairly dangerous assumptions. Unless, of course, you agree that women should be stoned to death for not wearing burkas, which is lest we forget seen as indecent by the majority of people in their community.

  • Julia Kiewit

    The underlying argument behind everything that I was trying to say is that you can’t have rights without corresponding duties, in order for a society to function.

    You may have the technical political right to say what you want, but that doesn’t mean that you SHOULD go around saying everything you want. I do believe that the Founders wanted people to be able to speak freely. I also believe they expected people to weigh their freedoms in balance with their other overall duties to society.

    Freedom of speech is freedom to say what you want, in a sense. But the way I am speaking of it, you may be free, but being responsible with that freedom means you shouldn’t view it as a license to say/publish whatever you want. The thing about living in a community is that people will always have competing freedoms. Your freedom to say something which may offend me (e.g., the book that was published). So we both have duties toward how we use our freedoms.

    I’m saying that it is our DUTY to restrict ourselves, not that the government should. I say it is a freedom to pursue truth, contrasted with how some people use speech today, as their own personal right to offend others, with no regard for duty.