Authors Petitioned PayPal in Defense of Free Speech

In parallel to the Rush Limbaugh scandal and backlash, there has also been a scandal over censorship by PayPal of material sold on Smashwords that it considered offensive. PayPal refused to process payments for certain types of books that were otherwise legal to distribute in the U.S. It has since reversed its policy under great pressure and outcry from free speech advocates.

In a letter signed by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, the Authors Guild, and others, PayPal is criticized harshly for censorship. SFWA’s board of directors also voted unanimously to sign the letter, but the point became moot when PayPal reversed its position.

In all of the discussion of the PayPal incident on the internet, I can not find anyone, anywhere, who says that “freedom of speech does not guarantee freedom of consequences” with respect to this situation, and that “a corporation has the right to exercise its freedom of speech by denying payment processing for offensive material.” No reasonable person thinks that’s okay. No one. Even though legally it’s in the clear. It’s not a constitutional matter, it’s a moral matter.

It also shows how the popularly suggested sinecure, “he should go get a blog,” or “he should self-publish his book,” is no solution. There is no “consequence free” publication option for speech that offends. There is no platform anywhere that is not supported somehow by the community. Even having flyers printed up requires the cooperation of a print shop–and that print shop could be pressured by offended groups to stop servicing those flyers. And as we’ve seen here, even a normally invisible party like a payment processor can decide that it gets a “vote” in the publication of material.

The letter states:

The Internet has become an international public commons, like an enormous town square, where ideas can be freely aired, exchanged, and criticized. That will change if private companies, which are under no legal obligation to respect free speech rights, are able to use their economic clout to dictate what people should read, write, and think.
PayPal, and the myriad other payment processors that support essential links in the free speech chain between authors and audiences, should not operate as morality police.

When we take a position that an action is morally wrong, there can be no allowance for double standards based on whether we think one side or the other is more right. Tolerating speech that offends and outrages us is the price for protecting speech that we believe is important and would otherwise be marginalized. Always.

Support who you want. Listen to who you want. Shut the door on who you want. But think hard about using “economic clout” to get between a voice and an audience that wants to hear that voice. Think hard about how that could possibly be different than what PayPal tried to do, or why you think you are safe from becoming a victim of turnabout.