Kept the Virtual Market Open
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.