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Should Free Speech Cover Books on Pedophilia?

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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

62 Responses to “Should Free Speech Cover Books on Pedophilia?”

  1. This is absolutely ridiculous. Its a book about victimizing children! That in itself has to be the most disgusting thing that can be thought of by anyone. For someone to publish a book on this, excusing it, and trying to get it accepted should not be tolerated. This is a book on how to rape and get away with it.

    OK, that being said. I’m all for free speech. Giving a criminal mind the tools to avoid prosecution should be banned.

  2. justathought

    This is a job for the American Library Association.

    The ALA has a century of experience in censorship battles, and they have the interests of freedom to read at heart. If you consult the ALA, and they say it wouldn’t be illegal for a library to buy it, then there should be no problem with Amazon selling it.

    There are sex toy shops downtown and the magazine/film porno industry is thriving. Surely these have set precedents with regard to how pedophilia can be presented and marketed? Perhaps anything justifying erotic love for children can be classified as “obscene” (illegal) rather than merely “objectionable” (one person imposing their taste on another, limiting the freedom to read). I’m not sure where to draw the line myself, but I’m willing to bet the ALA knows and already has written guidelines to deal with such books.

  3. I can’t believe people are actually defending this with warped views of what “Freedom of Speech” means!

    The “Freedom of Speech” comes where he is actually allowed to write such a horrible book without being arrested or hanged where he stands. THAT’S the freedom.

    Now how he gets this book published or sold is up to him. Amazon doesn’t have to sell his book, and not selling his book has nothing to do with Freedom of Speech. And this book is pretty much encouraging criminal activity, is that acceptable?

    He’s already exercised that amendment by writing it in the first place. He can make his own website or set up a book stand. You can’t expect someone to lower their morals or standards to allow you to have free speech. As free as he is to say these things, anyone else has the freedom to say they don’t agree with it and won’t support it.

    Art and literature are in the eye of the beholder when it doesn’t affect other people. You can do whatever you want in the name of “Art” if it only involves yourself, or people who agree to it. This book is not art, it’s a guide on how to hurt children, how can you even possibly consider that an expression of “Art”? So child molesters could simply claim they are “artists”?

    The ideas of “Tolerance” and “Freedom” are so screwed up today. I don’t have to tell you what you’re is okay. To tolerate something means I can openly disagree with you, but we move on anyway. It doesn’t mean I have to tell you what’s you’re doing okay and good.

  4. Honestly I don’t consider any information universally bad or harmful. Information is a tool and its up to one who makes decision to chose how it is used.

    Even in this case this case I guess it can have value in getting insight in to pedophiles views/habits/behavior that can be useful to detect them, protect your children better, for police to track them down or may be psychologist to get ideas of cases of this unacceptable thing…
    And I think it can give a more valuable insight then say book like “How to protect you children from pedophiles” or rather together with book of such theme give a more complete picture.

    So I can’t view any information as being solely bad as it can be used in very different ways.

  5. JanineAnnT

    vegetarians can choose to buy or not to buy meat, people who find this subject matter morally reprehensible and beyond (myself included) can choose to buy or not to buy the book.
    the bright side of this issue that elicits fierce emotional reactions is this: (assuming what i read about the objectionable title is correct) this individual has identified themselves as someone i don’t want to know or support, and someone, i strongly suggest, people ensure does spend time with children. on the flip side, this person has been a victim and will receive help as a result of this bizarre work. further, this persdon is an idioy shock-jock style author who has pushed the bounds of poor taste to gain some street cred…whatever the case, this is last attention i will pay it, but please, remember, we have the power to choose, when speech is censored, that power deminishes greatly.

  6. Derrick Harris

    This is a tough call, but it’s difficult to side with Amazon when, as an earlier commentor noted, Amazon is making a profit from this. Further, it’s free of any legitimate claim of liability and, it seems, obscenity, so it’s not like Amazon’s taking some great stand here. Want to take a real ethical stand? Turn down a sale out of principle.

    A counterargument to Jason’s would be that just because we have certain rights, that doesn’t mean we should exercise them for the sake of exercising them or use them to shield ourselves from any responsibility. It’s ethical laziness not to weigh the pros and cons in any given situation. If I sit down on a bench next to a mother and baby and light up a cigarette, I’m a jerk regardless of my right to do it. Same thing if I insist on wearing a holstered gun in public when I know it makes everyone around nervous. Amazon can decide it won’t sell books expressly advocating and giving instruction on pedophilia, and yet free speech will persevere.

    On a sidenote, where was the outrage when Rackspace shut down the Koran-burning pastor’s web site earlier in the year? I’ll acknowledge that I opposed Rackspace’s decision in that matter. I guess I draw my personal line at pedophilia.

    • Thanks for the comment, Derrick, but I think (as I said up above) that Amazon *is* taking a stand on principle. It would be much simpler for them to just remove it and be done with it — the money has to be totally inconsequential, or was until CNN and other places started talking about this book. And I agree everyone has a line — I happen to believe that speech of all kinds, especially offensive speech, needs to be protected.

      • Derrick Harris

        I couldn’t agree more about protecting offensive speech, actually, but I think my Con Law professors would cringe if I didn’t take the position that the law protects speech, not individuals. This speech is protected unless a court decides otherwise, and nothing Amazon does changes that.

        The degree to which Amazon provides a platform for protected speech is either an ethical decision and/or a business decision (likely both — I assume there’s an endless parade of calls to pull books) for which it has to answer.

        Thanks for the thought-provoking post and for inspiring me to set my personal record of text published on GigaOM without using the word “cloud.”

  7. I agree completely that Amazon should have the right to market the book if they wish. I also have the right to close my account and never do business with them again. This is how our country should be run and why we have the right of free speech. Let the people speak with their actions and keep the government out of making the choices of society.

  8. There IS a principle of free speech Amazon can use to defend its continued sale of this book. But its not the principle that’s enshrined in the Constitution, which is a protection of the people from government censorship. Amazon is not taking a stand on free speech because free speech isn’t threatened here, unless you think Amazon is the only way for this author to disseminate his ideas.

    The principle of free speech you’d have to want protected in order to make Amazon’s case is one where no one can refuse to forward any e-mails from grandma because refusing to do so is censorship. It’s one where no publisher can reject manuscripts, because rejecting them is censorship.

    That’s not a principle that’s enshrined or endorsed anywhere. Private merchants must have the right to refuse to sell merchandise offered to them; private publishers must have the right to refuse publication. Amazon is both a merchant and a publisher, and they have resources to draw on from both industries to justify refusing to publish this book without entangling themselves in a free speech dispute. They have chosen not to do so, but it’s not because they’re taking a stand for a principle of free speech (because the principle they’d be defending is some expanded version of the one in the Constitution), but is instead because they’re taking a stand for the principle of We Don’t Want to Have to Read All This Stuff.

    Amazon DOES refuse to sell pornography. They have taken a position on dissemination that is precisely contradictory to their “We won’t censor people” stand. Here they just don’t want to have to employ readers to vet content.

    That’s a fine operations principle to have. Sometimes it’s not going to work, and the customers are going to let them know about it. Instead of waving the flag for free speech in the hopes that people will leave them alone or laud them for their principles, they should start being consistent with themselves or face the backlash the way a business does. They don’t have the principles they want you to think they have.

  9. Free speech has limitations. It is not absolute in any country. This “book” is a prime example of why. See Wikipedia article on freedom of speech (

    According to the Freedom Forum Organization, legal systems, and society at large, recognize limits on the freedom of speech, particularly when freedom of speech conflicts with other values or rights. Limitations to freedom of speech may follow the “harm principle” or the “offense principle”, for example in the case of pornography or hate speech.

    This pedophile “book” most certainly falls into the harm principle. It is a how-to manual of the most despicable kind.

    So basically, Amazon’s freedom of speech argument is crap.

    • Thanks for the comment, JD — but in order for the harm principle to apply, there has to be a reasonable expectation that the book will actually lead to the harm that is being described. I don’t think any reasonable person would conclude that this book will turn anyone into a pedophile.

      • The book is not aimed at turning people into pedophiles, it is a guide for pedophiles on how to get away with a crime. It the excerpts that were posted it discusses needing smaller condom sizes and how to create a loving bond as to not traumatize the victims.

        In an interview w/ CNN the author himself stated that kissing and fondling of children were okay.

        I think that is clearly is a case where freedom of speech is not protected and the authors aim was advising other pedophiles on how to do their crimes.

        I am outraged that anyone would support this book. Also, the book has finally been removed.

  10. Bethany Lowe

    My first instinct was to shake my fist at Amazon. But then I thought of the books that I read that have illegal activity abound. I could learn how to make explosives from “Fight Club”, how to illegally scam and blackmail unsuspecting people from Grisham’s “The Brethren”, how to kill in countless ways from any number of books (including, gasp, the Bible, which is sitting in my bedroom). Would I want any of those books censored? There are numerous books about pedophilia, both fiction and nonfiction. Anyone can get ideas from those books, as horrible as the subject matter is. If this person is censored because he provided ideas, what about the millions of other books that might provide ideas to people who likely already malicious intent? The internet is more of a playground for pedophiles to find unsuspecting young victims, and they certainly didn’t need a book to point them to these kids. Should that be censored as well? This is not as black and white as it seems on the surface, unfortunately.

  11. People complain about censorship all the time from places like google and youtube, and now you finally have a corporation that is willing to stand up for free speech on the internet and the people still complain.

    I guess if you’re a corporation, the message the people send is: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  12. ApotheosisAZ

    I think the legal line gets crossed when you understand that the author is an accessory to the crime of child molestation.

    Please note that the author doesn’t have to be present during such a crime to be guilty as an accessory. Hell, he doesn’t even have to know for certain that someone will take his instructions on how to commit these illegal acts and use them.

    I’m kind of astounded that the book is still available. If a copy of this book is found at a crime scene where any of its instructions have been followed, you can bet Amazon will find themselves in a really nasty civil suit.

    I for one will not purchase anything from them while they sell this book.

  13. Bravo Matthew,

    I’m quite disturbed by Techcrunch’s moral crusade and relieved to find some Tech editorial that understands the difficult but principled basis for anti-censorship. As Voltaire so clearly explained the unconditional principle of free speech: “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

  14. Please don’t pat Amazon on the back for “Freedom of Speech” protections or for refusing to support censorship. These freedoms protect us as citizens against a “government,” not a business. Amazon is a business and thus Freedom of Speech does not apply. And they shouldn’t get credit for refusing to be censored. This subject matter is well within Amazon’s rights to censor without worry. They have chosen to carry electronic inventory of this horrible book. If I were the general counsel at Amazon, this issue is such an easy no-brainer: “shut this down.” This book and its subject matter content is borderline criminal and akin to publishing books on how to make bombs and perpetrate criminal activity. This is not art. This is not literature. This one warped person’s perspective on how to hurt other people and take advantage of children in a horrific way. Get a clue Amazon.

    • I think those freedoms are meant to be universal principles, not just to apply to behavior by governments. In any case, surely the decision about what is art or literature should be left up to the reader. Or should there be a government body that decides what we can read or not read?

  15. Matthew,

    They will change their mind on this when countless others like myself close out their account and refuse to do business with them. They answer to the shareholders. Market Cap will evaporate as mainstream media picks this up.

    Amazon is free to do whatever it wants, but I am as well and am voting with my wallet. I requested they close out my account.

  16. Defending free speech doesn’t mean you give those who intend to harm children a platform. Amazon is confused as to what the First Amendment means — Amazon is not required to promote anyone’s speech. Free speech laws have to do with government entities, not private entities.

    I have seen copies of some of the text in this book and it is a definite “how-to” guide on how to molest children younger than 13 and then how to avoid arrest.

    If Amazon is about promoting this material in the name of free speech, Amazon is going to have to answer for every child hurt because of this book. The emotional and physical pain those children suffer will be on Amazon’s hands.

  17. Marcelo, I agree 100%. This has nothing to do with the 1st amendment to the U.S. constitution, and Amazon *can* do whatever the heck it wants without regard to free speech concerns — which is precisely why Amazon, as a private business, should do the tasteful and decent thing and remove the book from its store.

    • Freedom of speech and freedom from censorship are principles, they don’t just apply to governments — they are theoretically things that govern human behavior in all kinds of different situations, and are valuable in and of themselves.

  18. I can’t say I agree. Free speech is not limitless; it’s limited in certain cases where the benefits of free speech outweigh its downside, such as yelling fire in a crowded theatre. If this is what it sounds like – a way to make pedophilia easier to carry out and not get caught – then this book is no different, with victims being children rather than trampled people.

    • I agree with you John. There are certain circumstances that warrant limited free speech, this mostly includes when someone else’s life is put in danger by speech actions. Same as you would never yell “i have a bomb” on a plane. The problem with this is that it legitimizes pedophilia and puts people who are on the border of succumbing to these feelings into a state of mind of “well if i follow the rules that a published work has put forth for me then i can do this”.

      At this point it is less about whether this man has the right to do it, and more about the moral obligation of everyone who encounters this to say “this is putting children in danger by letting pedophiles feel more comfortable doing what they do”.

      This man isn’t writing this book to “help pedophiles”, he’s doing it to attract attention. If he wanted to help pedophiles he would publish a book about suppressing obviously deviant behavior.

      Downright irresponsible on anyone’s part who even considers making this into a freedom of speech issue as opposed to a public safety issue.

  19. Free speech is indeed an important principle. Censorship is indeed problematic in many cases. This is not a simple question of censorship vs. free speech, though.

    I’d rather frame it in these terms — Amazon is profiting from the dissemination of this speech, and is enabling the author to profit from it as well. As has been pointed out in many places, this is not the only item in Amazon’s catalog that nears universal repugnance.

    Of course, I find many things repugnant and harmful that many others consider innocuous. I draw my lines as conscience dictates.

    Eventually everyone (or every corporate entity or group) has to draw lines and decide where they stand. Amazon has drawn an easy line, in the present moral environment — do nothing. Just let the cash flow in. Remove books from the catalog only when rightsholders demand (like the 1984 incident).

    Perhaps, in a free-speech sense, Amazon should only offer such materials for free, if the rightsholder concurs. If not, they have a very good reason not to stock the book. If they are too draconian, other ebook stores will cover that market. If they are too lenient, they’ll get a bunch of complaints.

    Like now.

    • I think it would be easy for Amazon to just not stock things that anyone disagrees with, because when it comes right down to it, how many people are going to buy this book? Virtually no one. So it’s clearly not a commercial question — they appear to see a principle at stake, which I admire.

      • I admire people who stick to principles. I also know that there must be a hierarchy of principles determined for when these principles come into conflict.

        Free speech is, of course, limited by statute, because there are far weightier principles at stake in a normal society.

        In my estimation (and that of most of our society) child protection stacks up somewhere above free speech. I think this is well enshrined in law.

        Misprioritization of principles is the basis for that old saw about how the road to Hell is paved…

  20. You know, even anti-pedophilia, isn’t talked about much. I wrote a book, “Cleansed – Secret crimes? Secret retribution” and submitted it to a couple of hundred agents and publishers directly. The overwhelming feedback was – we don’t touch a book with that topic at all.

    The story is about a guy from the USA helping to clean up the tsunami aftermath of 2004 in Patong Beach, Thailand – that finds ped photos in a dead German’s bag. The American is a child psychologist and rages inside over it. He stumbles on a ped network based in Patong Beach and goes about systematically infiltrating and destroying it. Vigilante fiction at it’s best!

    Nobody would touch it.

    It’s on Amazon and selling OK, getting more sales from my websites. The book is good. The topic – not well chosen for my first fiction book!

    Thanks for writing about this…

      • Brilliant Pebbles

        I couldn’t disagree more. Censorship is what the government does. Walmart not distributing Hustler magazine is not censorship by any useful definition. If I choose, as an event coordinator, not to provide a venue for a Holocaust denier, that too is not censorship. The freedom of speech is freedom from government interference in the private marketplace of ideas, both advocating and not.

      • For some reason I can’t reply directly to Brilliant Pebbles (I fail at teh internetz today apparently), but he or she nailed it – Amazon has every right to curate what they sell, and it’s actually a defense of THEIR freedom to do so – if someone on the other hand opened up a ‘Pedophilia Ebook’ site, and the government shut it down, THAT would be a free speech issue.

        The government banning things? Free speech issue. But by the same token if the government forced Amazon to keep it in stock, that’s violating Amazon’s freedoms as well.

  21. Just because I don’t agree with something doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be available. I don’t like eating shell fish, but that doesn’t mean nobody can go to a seafood restaurant.

    If we start censoring books (moreso) because they offend a group of people who probably haven’t read a book in the last 5 years, where will it stop?