Defending the Freedom of Speech in a Bookstore

This week the world has been shaken by the murder of staff members of the Paris-based satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Yes, the political and social commentary is edgy, even rude and often distasteful to many. Yet, this criminal act presses us to examine the challenges that come along with defending our freedom of expression.

In the bookstore business, we want people to think, research, learn and expand our world of understanding. Most of us believe that we are not there to judge what someone wants to read. We work to create a well-rounded selection of books by credible authors on topics of interest to customers then offer to order anything anyone wants that’s not on the shelves.

Two aspects of the core business can prompt challenges that booksellers need to be prepared to explain and defend:

1. Any store has finite space, so the store can’t carry everything. If it’s not on the shelves, it doesn’t necessarily mean the bookseller is opposed to its content.

2. There are many ways to view the same topic and respect the differences. Nudity to some is beautiful while to others it’s uncomfortable or inappropriate.

When I managed Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville, I recall being questioned by the local press about carrying “Final Exit” a book about ending your life. The store was picketed during the heat of the Iran Contra Affair when Ollie North came to do a signing. One day a customer complained about a photography book that included photos of nude children. Another day a customer was furious that the Gay & Lesbian section was within reachable distance for her toddler. Later, during the presidential election when John Kerry was Al Gore’s running mate, some conservative customers claimed indie bookstores weren’t carrying “Unfit for Command” when in fact, the publisher had run out of copies and no one could get the books for weeks.

If you’re thinking about opening a bookstore, most days are pleasant and customers, for the most part, are intelligent and tolerant. But, there are occasions when we are challenged and our task is to honor the complaining customer’s freedom of speech while we exercise our own.

Society remains healthy when bookstores and others don’t change their beliefs and practices when they are challenged, but help to share another view … and stand firm that a rich and hearty dialogue is necessary and worthwhile.

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