Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Kept the Virtual Market Open

By Shawn Healy
I was interviewed last week by Phil Rodgers of NBC-5 on the subject of's offering of magazines, books, and videos depicting animal fighting and other forms of cruelty. The online bookseller has been the subject of scrutiny from animal rights organizations like the Humane Society for allegedly violating a federal statute prohibiting the commercialization and furtherance of violence with animals.

A quick scan of Amazon, and a reader can find magazines depicting cockfighting, videos of dog fights, even a historic book on the former subject. Type "The Dog Pit" in the search box atop the screen and you'll have access to 24 copies of the 1888 tome. The book description informs us that "Contents Include How to Select, Breed, Train and Manage Fighting Dogs..."

Turn to the reader reviews, and a visitor encounters only two. The first is entirely critical, beginning with this terse language: "What a cruel and inhumane subject for a book. I hope people do not buy such tragic information. Do they want their children to read this book to learn how to torture dogs?"

The second critic obviously read the book (not clear in the first case), and suggested that "Like many guides from the earlier eras [on household, gardening, health, manners] this one shows where our society has been, how it's changed, and how surprisingly long-standing are some concerns."

Scroll down to the discussion board and the visitor can read and partake in an online discourse about the book, and in this case, the fact that Amazon makes its available for public consumption. One thread reads "Shame on you Amazon," and protests, " Amazon I will not buy another thing from your web site until you stop selling this crap. What is wrong with you??!!!" The seven posts that follow capture the same spirit, even targeting Amazon CEO Jeffrey Bezos.

I honestly didn't give the aforementioned controversy much attention prior to my interview, although the First Amendment purist in me tends to oppose book bans universally. I detail the above example because it led me to the conclusion that the marketplace of ideas, beyond eCommerce, is working on Amazon and elsewhere. By offering The Dog Pit and similar publications and materials, Amazon affords readers and customers a historic and contemporary perspective on the controversy surrounding dog fighting. How else can opponents arm themselves with the factual information necessary to disarm shadow operations like the one run on Michael Vick's property? For this reason and others, academic freedom must reign supreme.

Back to the federal statute. Is Amazon violating its dictates? The answer is potentially in the affirmative (I'll leave that for the courts to decide), but I would also argue that the law is potentially overbroad and the target of an fatal ruling by the federal courts. While Amazon is not publicizing actual instances of animal cruelty, the previously mentioned materials could be construed as furthering the cause, thus the potential pitfall. Should this occur, academic freedom would undoubtedly be violated, and the First Amendment weakened in the process. Commercial speech is admittedly afforded lower status and protection than that of a political nature, and Congress' undertaking here constitutes the former. The slippery slope surfaces when and if political statements about the utility of animal fighting fall victim to the statute.

What then, are the limits? Should the Anarchist Cookbook be available for public consumption? The line, although a seemingly shifty one, is drawn at the brink of incitement. When description trends toward advocacy of illegal activity, then the government has an interest in curtailing such speech. Otherwise, Congress and the courts would be wise to let the marketplace work. Amazon may pay a price from many consumers for offering what they consider vile products, but others will use these offerings for constructive (maybe illegal) purposes.

Academic freedom, and the First Amendment reigns, because we fight for its principles on the fringes. The Dog Pit and its contemporaries must remain on the virtual shelves of Amazon so that other controversial matters of public concern receive a favorable hearing in future debates.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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