Book-banning in an age of Amazon

Some will argue it is Amazon’s right to drop a book. Though it possesses many of the frightful powers of government and few of the limitations—Amazon is not the government. As a private company, many argue, it retains the right to stock its shelves with whatever it chooses. As someone put it to me on Twitter, “Publix stopped carrying my favorite salad dressing. You know what? I went to another store and bought it.”

This is the “Colorado Bakeshop” argument, which the Supreme Court considered in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission: Private businesses might have the right not to sell certain things customers want. It’s my cakeshop, damn it, runs the argument. If the proprietor doesn’t want to create a cake celebrating a gay wedding, or anything else that violates his conscience—maybe he shouldn’t have to.

But the argument is inapt: Amazon isn’t a neighborhood bakery. Small independent bookstores can (and often do) claim to be in the business of promoting a certain kind of speech. There are Christian bookstores and feminist bookstores and everything in between. And forcing such stores to sell books they don’t like would compromise the owners’ free-speech rights by forcing them to engage in what is arguably a form of compelled speech. But Amazon operates on a vast scale. Scale is the difference between homicide and genocide, a pickpocket and Bernie Madoff.