Amazon.com said on Friday it would not stop selling magazines devoted to cockfighting, the practice of having two specially trained and bred roosters fight each other.
The Humane Society of the United States had filed a lawsuit a day earlier, alleging that the sale of publications that discuss the topic violates animal cruelty laws and consumer protection laws. The advocacy group asked a federal judge in Washington, D.C., to grant an injunction against Amazon.
But an Amazon representative said the company's popular policy of stocking a wide selection of books, videos and magazines (some 90,000 magazine titles alone) would not change.
"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."
In Watts v. U.S., for instance, the Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to punish someone who used hyperbole when threatening to shoot the president. "If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J," meaning President Johnson, an anti-war activist said at a rally. "They are not going to make me kill my black brothers."
The Humane Society's complaint (PDF) claims that "the magazines contain hundreds of criminal solicitations and feature advertisements for fighting birds, fighting dogs and other contraband that render them unlawful." It also takes issue with Amazon's sales of dog-fighting videos.
One other factor in Amazon's favor: While cockfighting is banned in most places, it's still legal in New Mexico and Louisiana.
CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report