Home & Office

Amazon book ban backfires

After absorbing withering criticism for its decision to stop selling a book critical of Scientology, Amazon.com has reversed itself.
Written by Charles Cooper, Contributor

The move to withdraw the book, "A Piece of Blue Sky," comes a day after a report published in Wired News triggered a rash of postings on Internet newsgroups. The book, a critical examination of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was pulled by Amazon in February after an injunction against its distribution in London. The courts had ruled in 1995 that the book, authored by a British writer named Jon Atack, contained defamatory language.

Amazon spokesman Bill Curry said the bookseller withdrew the book after it learned this past February of the cease and desist order that was in place in the UK. "In February, with that information, it seemed like the right decision at the time," he said. Curry added, "current information in the last couple of days fortunately caused us to take a closer look." He said Amazon will again offer the book after the company implements a feature that blocks its sale to the U.K. Curry said the original decision to stop selling the book was not a mistake. "It seemed the right decision at the time," he said. "But like so many decisions," he continued, "once you start peeling a decision, like an onion, you say maybe there's a better way to handle this." While competitors reaped a PR windfall, Amazon was taking a PR pummeling: Newsgroup postings on the Internet condemned the company and Netizens noted that despite the UK ban, Amazon rivals such as Barnesandnoble.com and Borders.com, continued to offer "A Piece of Blue Sky."

"They did a very stupid thing, and considering what weak foundation they stand on, I would not be surprised or unhappy to see them pay big," wrote one participant in the alt.religion.scientology forum. This isn't the first time that Amazon has been forced to backtrack from an embarrassing decision. In February, the company was forced to change its content sponsorship practices after it was disclosed that publishers seeking to promote their books paid $10,000 (£6,000) to highlight their products on Amazon's home page.

Legal experts watching how Amazon handled the Scientology case noted that the rules of cyber law governing freedom of speech are as inchoate as they are complex. "The rules are emerging," said Michael Traynor, a specialist in First Amendment law at the San Francisco firm of Cooley Godward LLP.

Indeed, there are a handful of cases in the U.S. where the courts have refused to enforce British libel judgement on the grounds that it would be contrary to public policy and the First Amendment. "British libel law is considerably different than the U.S.," Traynor said. "If a company has no presence in England, then the question is whether they should be able to publish whatever they want. In this case, Amazon wasn't the publisher of the book or its author -- so what differentiates them from the library? It seems their original decision was unduly protective."

A spokeswoman for the Scientology movement, Linda Peters, said it appreciated "Amazon.com's effort to honour the rights of the woman who obtained an injunction against the defamatory statements about her in the book."

Editorial standards