(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The other day, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press wondered if the sudden spate of measles cases in several parts of the country might be the fault of Amazon.com Inc., because until recently it offered books and videos created by anti-vaccination activists.
As a big free speech guy, to say nothing of a working writer, I think I’ll go with no.
Does this mean what it sounds like? Yes: I think Amazon should still be selling those nutty books about the dangers of vaccination. No, no, I’m not remotely a part of that movement. When our kids were small, they got every single scheduled shot; my wife and I get ours. And if you’re going to tell me that refusing to have children vaccinated is dangerous to others — well, I agree.
But I’m not a fan of having dominant booksellers choose not to sell controversial titles because they (or powerful politicians; we’ll get to that in a moment) don’t happen to agree with their messages. My concerns are just as large when the fear is that the book provides bad medical advice. In fact, the greater the pressure to suppress a dangerous book, the more I would want the sellers of books to resist.
The decision by Amazon (along with similar moves by Netflix Inc. and, more recently, GoFundMe and Instagram) followed news reports about the ease with which supposedly dangerous videos and volumes could be had by anyone searching for them, and some who weren’t. In March, Democratic Representative Adam Schiff entered the brouhaha with a letter to Amazon CEO Jeffrey Bezos, “requesting additional information on the steps that you currently take to provide medically accurate information on vaccinations to your users, and to encourage you to consider additional steps you can take to address this growing problem.”
The right answer would have been for Amazon to say, “We offer our members the opportunity to buy any book or other content that is legally published. We do not believe that members of Congress should try to dictate which books are too dangerous to be sold.” Alas, that isn’t what happened. Amazon got the answer wrong. So did much of the rest of the tech community, which leaped with alarming alacrity onto the idea-banning bandwagon.
Happily, not everyone has jumped aboard. Among the wise resisters one finds the American Booksellers for Free Expression, the advocacy arm of the American Booksellers Association, which criticized Schiff’s letter “as an attempt to bully Amazon into removing certain titles that he believes are inappropriate or misleading,” and added: “It is precisely this very reason why we have a First Amendment — to protect us from a government that would rather squelch debate than promote dialogue.”(1)
Still, the First Amendment is only a tiny part of the story. Amazon is a private company. So are Netflix and GoFundMe and Instagram’s owner, Facebook, and the other bandwagoneers. They can impose what content rules they like without running afoul of a constitutional prohibition. But they should recognize — as should Schiff — that when voluntarily adopted rules are intended to keep from the public legal books or videos considered dangerous, the decision carries the implicit understanding that the public is too stupid to reject the dangerous ideas on their own.
Maybe you think it would be a good thing if the ideas touted by anti-vaccination groups ceased to exist. Certainly good medical advice is better than bad. But I’m not prepared to say we should hide ideas we think are dangerous. It’s tragedy enough that this sort of McCarthyite nonsense has become common as cheese on the many college and university campuses that have forgotten the fundamentals of their academic mission. The last thing we need is for members of Congress to spread the same poison.
You might respond that Amazon isn’t the whole market. Surely those parents seeking reasons not to vaccinate can find their books and videos somewhere else. But there’s a reason Schiff wrote his letter to Amazon rather than to some more marginal seller of books and other content. In today’s book market, if you’re not being sold by Amazon, you don’t really exist. Schiff agrees: “As the largest online marketplace in the world, Amazon is in a unique position to shape consumption,” he writes.
Exactly. Amazon can shape consumption, but we’re better off if it does as little shaping as possible. “Every book that’s legal” would be a pretty good slogan. Certainly the government shouldn’t be pressuring the company to keep certain books off its virtual shelves.
Which brings us back to the question whether those who sell the books or videos of the anti-vaccination movement bear responsibility for what happens next. I can understand the argument that the authors of the books bear a degree of ethical responsibility when people act as the books urge them to. But the sellers? I think not. After all, you can walk into most any serious bookstore and walk out with a copy of “Mein Kampf.” As dangerous ideas go, that belongs near the top of the list.
But we’re better off if no list exists.
(1) Okay, “precisely this very reason” is a bit awkward, but these are book sellers, not book authors.
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Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”
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