Censorship, free speech, and the (non)selling of symbols

Censorship, free speech, and the (non)selling of symbols

Amazon, along with several other retailers, is reportedly no longer going to carry items with the “Confederate flag” on them.

This is one of many articles on it:

CNN article by MJ Lee

This is a more complex issue than it might appear at first, and lands squarely in the middle of a topic we’ve discussed before.

Let’s talk about this in more general terms, rather than in the specific of this issue. That’s an important thing to do, especially for something involving a public entity. What may seem obvious to some people in one case then becomes a precedent for other cases where it may appear to be less clear cut.

First, First Amendment free speech of the publisher/product manufacturer is not involved. The First Amendment to the US Constitution has to do with what the government can do. It doesn’t have to do with what your friends, family…or employer can do.

An employer has the right to tell you that you can’t talk about politics with the customers. The government can’t tell you that you can’t talk politics with your social circle, but that’s entirely different.

Similarly, the government telling you that you couldn’t display a symbol or publish a book on a topic would be an infringement of the First Amendment…a bookstore refusing to carry books that promoted murder )or supported civil rights) can do that.

So, Amazon has the right to not carry books on pretty much any basis.

As a customer, you also have the right not to shop at a store that carries certain items…or refuses to carry them.

Amazon has other items it chooses not to carry…while carrying other controversial ones.

Snopes, which is a wonderful resource for checking out urban legends has even addressed a story that Amazon pulled Confederate flags, but not ISIS flags:

Snopes article by Kim LaCapria

As readers, it’s important to note that books are usually treated quite differently than visual depictions. Pornography prosecutions are going to go after videos or magazines with pictures far more often than text erotica.

I just did a quick search for

Confederate flag in the USA Kindle store (at AmazonSmile*)

Right off the bat, there are visual depictions of the symbol on book cover images…even though Amazon has supposedly removed sales of items with such displays.

Books are, as I would have expected, apparently being treated as a different class.

Even if you wish you would never see that particular flag again, you have to think about how you would like to achieve that goal. Do you want the government to ban it? Do you want stores to choose not to carry it? Do you want people to elect, on an individual basis, not to show it publicly? Privately?

Extend this to other symbols…the swastika might be a choice of some, perhaps necessitating cover changes to books like

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (at AmazonSmile*)

For some of you, that may seem like a slippery slope argument…and I’ll keep sliding for a moment. 😉 If banning the symbol makes sense, does banning writing about the symbol make sense? Should you ban pro-Confederate non-fiction? What about fiction? Are books required to condemn the Confederacy if they are going to write about the “War Between the States”, “American Civil War”, or “War of Yankee Aggression”? You’ll see all three terms used in the USA, by the way, in part depending on where you are.

That’s not going to happen…not by the government.

However, industry groups have had “moral codes”.

The Comics Code Authority, for example had some very specific rules:

“3. Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.”

“5. Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates the desire for emulation.

6. In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.”


Imagine if those rules applied to modern television…

Remember that the Comics Code applied to publishing…and while some of it has to do with what is drawn, the above examples and many others have to do with the narrative.

My personal philosophy on this?

Let me give you an analogy.

I would prefer that people never started smoking cigarettes…that the product never existed.

I have a very bad reaction to cigarette smoke, and someone I know with asthma has had to go to the Emergency Department from unexpected exposure.

Would I pass a law banning cigarette smoking?


What I would want is that everyone simply stops smoking or selling cigarettes. I know that won’t happen, at least not for a very long time.

Now, smoking in public is an issue for me, because there are clear public health impacts. I understand laws about that. I’d equate it to you not being able to drive your car on the sidewalk…but its fine with me if you want to drive your own car into the side of your own unoccupied house

Some people are going to equate displaying what they see as a symbol of hate with smoking in public. They think the exposure to the idea is psychologically/morally harmful in the same way that second hand smoke is physically harmful.

To that, I would say, “Show me the science”.

If it can be reasonably shown that exposure to an idea (visually or textually represented) in public is a threat to public safety (the classic example of yelling “Fire” in a crowded theatre), then it makes sense to me for the government to regulate it. Not destroy it entirely, but removing the public safety threat.

If an error is going to be made due to fuzzy results, I’m going to tend to lean in favor of intellectual freedom.

Could someone argue that reading Gone with the Wind or Tarzan makes someone racist? I suppose, but in order for action to be taken, I’d want there to be very solid evidence of that public impact, and then only take actions against what  I would assume to be a narrow set of circumstances. I’ve read Tarzan, and certainly recognize the racial depiction of Jane’s maid…but I don’t think that made me any less tolerant. I would guess that recognizing it actually may have contributed to me being more tolerant. There are studies that suggest that reading makes you more tolerant, not less.

I realize that this a controversial topic, and debated even writing this piece…but I’m very interested in what you think. Should Amazon be compelled not to carry certain works? Should the e-tailer make that choice, or should they leave it up to market forces? Why are books treated differently from visual depictions? Does consuming media change people’s morals and behavior…and if so, for both good and bad? I do think I have  benefited from modeling my behavior to some extent on fiction (I think I’m a much better person for wanting to follow certain ideas of Doc Savage…although I do think those books have been reasonably challenged for ethnic/racial depictions). Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

Join thousands of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


9 Responses to “Censorship, free speech, and the (non)selling of symbols”

  1. Phink Says:

    I know this has got me in an uproar. I live in Arkansas so maybe my perspective is different than some Yankee LOL. You can’t trust the opinion of someone who doesn’t drink sweet tea anyhow LOL. I jest of course but how can they get by without the glorious flavor of sweet tea? Ok, back on subject.

    I wrote both Amazon and Walmart emails. I basically told them they chose politics over profits, shareholders, and their customers desires. Of course I speak of southern customers desires. Around here, people are having a fit. If there was any place left that sold Confederate merchandise they’d probably boycott Walmart, Sears, Amazon, etc. Problem is all the companies cannot wait to join the Political Correctness movement. And for those that have never been here it’s not wall to wall Confederate imagery. You see very little of it actually.

    What’s funny is I never wanted the Confederate flag until I was told I could not have it. I admired it because I am a huge states rights person. I admired it because like General Lee (and most in 1861) I believe you are a citizen of your state first and then of your nation. Lee was offered command of the entire Northern forces in 1861 but he said he could not fire upon Virginia. He hated slavery, hated the idea of secession but was duty bound to follow his state. When I see that flag, that’s what I see. I don’t see slavery anymore than when I look at the US Flag. It is a horrible stain on our history. It’s something we have to live with. But, the US flag is just as guilty. It is our history, but exactly that — history. I love the US flag and I love the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia as well. I loved it but never thought about buying anything with it’s image on it….until a few days ago. Now, my Facebook image is of the Confederate flag, my desktop background is an image of it and I want a shirt or hat with it. Trouble is, where do I buy this legal merchandise without paying a huge premium?

    Merchants do have a right to stop selling this merchandise but I think it’s short sided. How does me wearing a hat with the Confederate flag hurt anyone else? How does someone wearing a Nazi image hurt me? It does not. Inside I’d cringe when if I seen it but I would not say anything, I’d still be nice to the guy if he wanted to talk to me, and I’d leave the conversation thinking “isn’t it great we live in a free society.” See, I believe the Nazi flag is illegal in Germany but I love freedom above all else. When I’m offended I’m glad I live in a country where I can be offended. I’m almost thankful I’m offended because it means I’m free. I hate for someone to tell me what I can do or cannot do. I cannot stand for someone to tell me what I can own and what I cannot own.

    One more thing. Amazon’s official statement should have actually said “We are a retailer. We are not a political organization. We have no official opinion on the Confederate flag or any other political issue.” That should be there standard statement for all things such as gay marriage, the flag, or anything else.

  2. Tom Semple Says:

    While I think it is unfortunate that retailers feel compelled to do this, I can understand that they would not wish to be associated with a sales boom of ‘Confederate’ merchandise, giving fuel to the fire as it were. Of course, this merchandise will continue to be sold, and likely the profits will more directly support racist agendas. I don’t see how that serves our public discourse or in any way addresses the issues. But as you say, ‘it is complicated’ and I don’t imagine there are simple solutions.

  3. alanchurch Says:

    Pink said:” I admired it (the Confed. Flag) because I am a huge states rights person.”
    The war was started and fought by a traitorous nation to preserve one states’ right- the right to own slaves. While this may not have been the reason for most soldiers it was the reason the states seceded and went to war as soon as Lincoln took office because they were afraid he would move to end slavery. That’s it. One right-to own slaves.
    I think the more companies and states move to remove the flag the more this country will move toward justice and the less blacks will feel intimidated. Those who display the flag are either unaware of how it makes blacks feel,don’t care, or want to hurt them.

    Leave it on books though, of course.

  4. Phink Says:

    alanchurch is wrong and I don’t know what else to say about it and won’t say anything else about it. Well have to agree to disagree on it.

  5. alanchurch Says:

    From History Detectives on PBR:
    “What led to the outbreak of the bloodiest conflict in the history of North America?

    A common explanation is that the Civil War was fought over the moral issue of slavery.

    In fact, it was the economics of slavery and political control of that system that was central to the conflict.

    A key issue was states’ rights.

    The Southern states wanted to assert their authority over the federal government so they could abolish federal laws they didn’t support, especially laws interfering with the South’s right to keep slaves and take them wherever they wished.

    Another factor was territorial expansion.

    The South wished to take slavery into the western territories, while the North was committed to keeping them open to white labor alone.

    Meanwhile, the newly formed Republican party, whose members were strongly opposed to the westward expansion of slavery into new states, was gaining prominence.

    The election of a Republican, Abraham Lincoln, as President in 1860 sealed the deal. His victory, without a single Southern electoral vote, was a clear signal to the Southern states that they had lost all influence.

    Feeling excluded from the political system, they turned to the only alternative they believed was left to them: secession, a political decision that led directly to war.”

    SLAVERY WAS THE REASON! ,whether you agree or not. Facts are facts.

  6. Phink Says:

    Bufo, I wanted to say thank you. I am thankful that for the most part you leave politics out of this blog. I love the fact that I have no idea what side of the political fence you plant your crops. Being from California I can guess LOL. I kid, I kid. This discussion was extremely rare and I thank you for keeping it that way. It seems politics infiltrates every aspect of our lives nowadays. That reason is also why I got upset when the St. Louis Rams players raised their hands (in tribute to Ferguson, MO). I do not want to see NFL players take up the political issues of the day. I like the fact I can relax for 12 hours on Sundays, watching 3 games, without politics ever being discussed. This is also why I got upset a few years ago when they started doing a tradition where the President gets interviewed before the Super Bowl. We can see that any day. Give us one day of no politicians, please. LOL. Thank you Bufo for not wearing your politics on your sleeve and for keeping this a political free zone 98% of the time. Again, I am so thankful that I have no idea how you voted in the last election.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Phink!

      I really appreciate you saying that! I debated even writing that piece, and asked my Significant Other first. However, while you and alanchurch clearly have different opinions, I’m pleased that you both expressed them without ad hominem.

      They say all politics are local…but that doesn’t mean that every locale has to be politics. 😉 I used to be deeply involved in a pretty controversial topic, but I could always talk to people on both sides. I would enjoy it, though, when one person might think I was aligned with one side, and another person just as strongly would think I was aligned with the other.

      Just for your information, the San Francisco Bay Area has both liberal and conservative extremes, which many people don’t know. Berkeley and San Francisco are famously liberal, but Concord is home to the Traditional Values Coalition. I remember driving through Concord (there’s a big mall there) one year, and one person’s campaign sign was an American flag with the slogan, “This is NOT San Francisco” with the “not” red and underlined.

      My point in bringing it up wasn’t to be political, but to use it as an opportunity to talk about the expression of ideas, which I think is relevant all readers. I have weighed in on copyright and equal collection legislation, but those relate directly to the topics of this blog.

      San Francisco”

  7. Phink Says:

    I love a good civil debate. I love to have a conversation with anyone. I just love to talk and to hear others talk I guess. I’m also thankful there are a few (very few) places where I can go and be politics free. I’m glad you brought this topic up. I’m glad we both had our say. I’m also glad that this was a rare thing for your blog.

  8. alanchurch Says:

    One more time. From the New Yorker.

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