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Letter to Amazon

Reader comment on item: Amazon.com's Koran Desecration Problem

Submitted by Eric Goodman (United States), May 28, 2005 at 06:15

Dear Ms. Smith:
I am writing to you as a long-time and loyal Amazon customer, and as a concerned citizen, regarding the Bellwether-Koran incident. I am concerned about Amazon's inappropriate response to a Bellwether's alleged failure to purge offensive speech from a used book. Amazon's response is troubling in the following ways:

Lack of due process. The allegations came from an ideologically motivated customer, at a time when Koran-desecration has suddenly become front-page news. It is at least conceivable that the event was concocted for ideological reasons. So, even if booksellers are expected to purge their books of all offensive speech (which I doubt) there seemed to be a presumption of guilt in this case.
Bellwether's lack of culpability. No one seriously believes that Bellwether itself put the comments in the book. Is it really Amazon's standard that all scribblings in used books must be reviewed by resellers in case they are offensive? If only certain comments must be erased, which ones? Only death threats? Blasphemy? Ethnic slurs? Obscenity? Has that or any standard been communicated and consistently applied? I doubt it, and therefore suspect that your treatment of Bellwether was unfair.
Threat to Free Speech. Until and unless Amazon makes clear what its standards are, its actions may be interpreted as forbidding speech considered blashphemous, and in particular to Muslims. In fact, because the offending language included a death threat, I and many others would consider it reasonable for Amazon to purge it from its commerce, as it might purge calls for race wars or other incitements to violence. But Amazon's response appeared to endorse purging speech that might be considered offensive to Muslims in other ways, which is a very dangerous standard that is unfortunately the norm in many parts of the world.

As the largest bookstore in the U.S., Amazon should provide leadership on this important issue by carefully guarding hard-won standards of free speech -- especially when they are under attack. If certain kinds of speech are beyond the pale (and calls for murder may be beyond the pale) then that standard should be narrowly defined, clearly communicated, and consistently applied. But in the case of used book sellers, it seems unreasonable to expect them to edit the scribblings in their merchandise. I would urge Amazon to tell offended customers that neither Amazon nor other booksellers review, edit, or endorse such marginalia -- and that if they want to avoid them in the future, they should stick to new books.


Eric Goodman

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