Booksellers should defend freedom of expression

As a former bookseller I have been disturbed that some booksellers (Paper Plus and the Warehouse) have been panicked by a Facebook campaign into refusing to stock Ian Wishart’s book Breaking Silence: the Kahui Case.

It sets a bad precedent for booksellers to ban from their shelves

other books on controversial topics

that upset a section of the community. Free speech means that we should be able to access and read all perspectives on an issue. I agree with Annette Sykes who says that all should be given the right to express a view no matter how disconcerting it may be, on even the most difficult or abhorrent of issues. And to me the free speech principle applies whether or not the author or publisher is making a lot of money or no money out of the book.

It is true that booksellers have the right to choose what books they stock. When I was manager of Auckland’s One World Books in the 1990s I mainly chose progressive books on social and environmental issues. But I also stocked books by ACT politician leader Richard Prebble, because his views were part of the left/right debate at the time. However, there is a fundamental difference between not stocking a book and actually banning it and refusing to fulfill orders for it because of public pressure – particularly in the case of a general bookstore that might be the only outlet in a town.

Implicit in free speech is the idea that the community benefits from an untrammelled exchange of views and that every participant might have something to add to our enlightenment. Without even knowing what is in the book the boycotters are rejecting that possibility in the case of Breaking Silence.

There is an

insightful column by Tapu Misa

in this morning’s New Zealand Herald. She’s “inclined to the old-fashioned view that you need to read a book before you can decide if it’s rubbish. There’s a chance we might actually learn something, which I would have thought would be a good thing given our horrifying child abuse statistics.”