Should Free Speech Cover Books on Pedophilia?

Updated: If you want to test someone’s belief in freedom of speech, the easiest way is to bring up something morally abhorrent — topics such as the defense of pedophilia, incest, the denial of the Holocaust, and so on. Amazon (s amzn) found itself right in the middle of that kind of battlefield today, after word got out on Twitter and elsewhere in the blogosphere that the online retailer’s Kindle e-book library includes a book entitled “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure.” Hundreds of commenters have complained and asked Amazon to remove the book, but the company has refused to do so, saying it does not believe in censorship. Update: As of Thursday morning, it looks like the book has been removed.

It’s not clear why the book started getting attention today, since it was self-published almost two weeks ago by someone named Phillip R. Greaves II, but it started attracting comments, and soon there were hundreds (there were almost a thousand at last check, although Amazon moderators have reportedly removed several hundred offensive ones), of which the vast majority were calling for the online retailer to take the book off its virtual shelves. Many said they planned to boycott Amazon as a result of its decision not to remove the book. But in a statement, the company said:

Amazon believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable. Amazon does not support or promote hatred or criminal acts, however, we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions.

Part of what Amazon has been selling with the Kindle and the e-book store is the ability for virtually anyone to self-publish whatever they wish, something I have written about in the past as a good thing. But obviously the downside of that ability is that people can publish disturbing things as well, such as the book in question — which the author says is “my attempt to make pedophile situations safer for those juveniles that find themselves involved in them, by establishing certian [sic] rules for these adults to follow.” The book apparently doesn’t contain any images, so it doesn’t fall into the category of child pornography, although some would likely argue that it is just as bad.

A few commenters on the book have defended Amazon’s decision, saying the company should be congratulated for not giving into pressures to censor such material. Some observers have pointed out that the retailer has been down this particular road before, with books that involved the same topic, and in those cases it has also made the same argument: that censorship is not right, regardless of the content. Obviously, it’s incredibly difficult to support a topic like this one, but I happen to think Amazon is doing the right thing (although others seem to disagree). Freedom from censorship is an important principle, despite the fact that it’s hard to support when it involves such material.

With the explosion of self-publishing that the Kindle and other tools provide, this is probably not the last time Amazon will have to make that choice. For what it’s worth, I hope that they continue to defend free speech, as difficult as that might be.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Jennifer Moo