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August 20, 2007

Humane Society Sues Amazon.com Over Animal Fighting Magazines

Featheredwarrior
A Louisville T.V. station is the latest news outlet to cover the story of a lawsuit brought by the Humane Society of the United States against online retailer Amazon.com for selling books and magazines about dog and cock fighting. You see, Amazon.com has available for purchase at least two magazines about the bloodsport of cockfighting, which is a felony in all but two states. The retailer also sells books on dog fighting–one is a how-to on pits and breeding and treating wounds. After a couple of years of attempted negotiations with Amazon.com, the HSUS has now resorted to suing the e-commerce site based on the Washington Animal Welfare Act which "expressly and specifically prohibits use
of the U.S. mail service for ‘promoting’ or ‘in any other manner
furthering’ animal fighting. The HSUS argues:

If there is any doubt that The Feathered Warrior and The Gamecock
exist to promote and further illegal animal fighting, one need only
glance through their pages to find hundreds of advertisements each
month for cockfighting knives, cockfighting pits and the so-called
"gamest cocks alive."

Illustrating this point further, the December 2006 issue of The Gamecock
featured a full-page advertisement for the sale of the "Sally Gap"
cockfighting pit in Kentucky. When an HSUS investigator responded to
the ad by phone, he was told that this was one of the largest
cockfighting pits in the region. The seller also gave exact directions
to the pit and assured the investigator that anyone who bought the pit
would have nothing to worry about from the local sheriff.

The words of the Sally Gap’s owner proved true. In February 2007,
just before filing the lawsuit against Amazon.com, an HSUS investigator
visited the Sally Gap pit while a cockfighting derby was in full force.
Amid dead and dying birds was a crowd of 500 people, including
children, calling out bets on which birds would live or die. The
roosters had metal weapons attached to their legs for maximum bloody
effect.

Amazon.com, however, argues that it aims to carry the broadest selection of multimedia, and that stopping the sale of these products amounts to censorship, which is a violation sof the First Amendment. Free speech advocacy groups have expressed their support of the company:

"We see this as a freedom of speech issue," said Amazon’s Patty Smith.
"In our mind, freedom of speech is designed to protect unpopular or
ugly speech, and we don’t think customers want us picking what we think
is appropriate for them to read. Our stated goal is always to provide
customers with the broadest selections possible."

Smith said that Amazon does not necessarily endorse the opinions of
any of its authors, artists or musicians, including the ones that the
Humane Society is so upset about. "But we also think that the law
recognizes the important difference between actually engaging in
illegal activity and simply writing about illegal activity."

Because the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment provides a general
guarantee of freedom of speech except in very narrow circumstances, the
Humane Society is facing an uphill battle. No U.S. court (that we know
of) has ever held that it’s illegal to sell or publish a cockfighting
magazine.

The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression quickly came to Amazon’s defense.

"Speech that advocates hateful ideas is entitled to the same degree
of First Amendment protection as speech advocating popular views," said
ABFFE President Chris Finan. "If the courts accepted the Humane
Society’s argument, we can only wonder what other kinds of
controversial ideas in books and magazines would come under attack
next. This is why the Supreme Court has declared that even the advocacy
of illegal conduct is protected by the First Amendment."

Well, I, for one, am torn. I’m an animal lover of the highest order. Friends and family might say I’m a little nutty about them. Animal cruelty and neglect are two atrocities high on my list of acts that thoroughly disgust me. In fact, I obsess over the suffering of perpetually chained neighbor dogs and am constantly on the lookout for underfed or thirsty strays.

I am also a strident defender of our Constitution’s First Amendment. As a student of journalism and a media lover through-and-through, I have always argued that Congress shall make no law, despite the myriad laws already in place. I will defend your right to own books on how to make bombs as ardently as I’ll defend your right to own a Bible. Information is not illegal, nor should it be. Which is why I find myself so completely torn on this case.

Is the shipping of cock fighting magazines the promoting of the bloodsport? Or are the publishers of the magazine the promoters? Or is it both? I’d argue that if you are going to sue anyone for promotion of felony cockfighting then it should be the publishers of the publication in question, not a third party online retailer. It is hard to deny that reads like Feathered Warrior are not directly promoting a horrific and mostly illegal activity, but I don’t think Amazon is the guy to go after.

Sure, without Amazon.com the proliferation of these magazines would be slowed, but not stamped out. The publishers could still distribute without the aid of the e-commerce giant. Aren’t they the culprits in promoting cockfighting here? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Amazon.com sells other unsavory items like The Anarchist Cookbook and Faces of Death. If Amazon.com is forced to stop selling animal fighting magazines, will books and videos like these be far behind?

Ron Hogan of MediaBistro, a former Amazon.com employee, weighs in with this:

The Humane Society says the First Amendment defense doesn’t fly,
because the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act makes it a
felony to sell materials promoting animal fighting. But even if that
weren’t the case, I’ve got to admit I’ve got serious misgivings. As a
former Amazon "book review editor," I was present for internal
arguments about books dealing with equally controversial subjects,
particularly books about pedophile culture. And if you give in on the
really blatant "boylove" stuff, the reasoning ran, eventually somebody
comes after you for the Jock Sturges  and Sally Mann
books, so you had to keep the goalposts all the way at the end of the
field to keep everything in play, if I can strain a metaphor badly.

On the other hand, the whole "we don’t think customers want us
picking what we think is appropriate for them to read" line strikes me
as a way to evade taking responsibility for certain decisions—because
refusing to stock materials you find morally (or even just
aesthetically) objectionable isn’t about choosing "what is appropriate
for them to read," it’s about defining what you choose to help
propagate in the world, and of course the First Amendment doesn’t
really apply to a publicly held retailer’s decision to carry or not
carry a product, anyway. When Amazon really means, then, is something
closer to "we don’t want to risk turning away any customer,
because the dogfighting enthusiasts and the pedophiles will order
mainstream products too," and they’d rather not have those dollars
going to Barnes & Noble. But that, one might argue, is a
perfectly reasonable capital-driven decision, perhaps even the only
responsible decision a retailer accountable to stockholders could make.

I’m by no stretch of the imagination a lawyer or even student of the law, but I don’t see the Humane Society having much luck with their lawsuit against Amazon.com. I’m reluctantly glad about that, because I truly value the freedom of speech and print in this country, and I hate to see any erosion of it. I just hope that the Humane Society’s very good intentions bring about more awareness regarding cock fighting and dog fighting. These bloodsports are far too common in our society, and I’d like nothing more than to see it eliminated.

Suffice it to say, I’ll be watching this case with great interest.

MORE ON THIS CASE:



About the Author

Michelle Ryan
Michelle Ryan
Michelle Ryan is obsessed with good food, great shoes and Alabama football way down South in Savannah, Georgia. She hasn’t met a kitchen gadget she hasn’t at least thought about buying (trying them is another story) and devotes her time to Bikram Yoga, baking and trying to overcome long-held finicky eating habits.