when suppoedly indecent material cannot even be sold at first place. Today, the NYTimes reports that Wal-Mart is banning 3 men’s magazines (Maxim, FHM, and Stuff, of which I have never heard) because of the allegedly offensive nature of their cover designs.
According to the NYTimes
“[t]he decision to stop selling the so-called lads’ magazines is the latest in a series of moves by the company to limit distribution of entertainment products it judges too racy for its shoppers.The company has refused to sell CD’s that carry warning labels about explicit lyrics; instead, Wal-Mart Stores sell sanitized versions of albums.”
So this is what “lad’s magazines” might look on Wal*Mart shelves in the future should they too decide to honor Wal*Mart’s decision and market power with a special edition –
Of course, Wal*Mart Stores, Inc., is a private entity and therefore, technically, no legal constitutional issues are at stake in instances like these. But that does not make things easier at all, as Nadine Strossen, a professor of constitutional law at New York Law School and the president of the American Civil Liberties Union explaines to the NYTimes –
“[w]hen you have a store that in many parts of the country has a dominant position, so that if you can’t buy a magazine at Wal-Mart, you can’t buy it at all … [i]t has literally the same practical effect in many communities as outright government censorship.”
If that were indeed the case, then the sheer market power of retail gatekeepers like Wal*Mart may make it necessary to rebalance their – and their shareholders’ – discretion with respect to other people’s ability to exercise their rights –
“[t]he Timothy Plan, a mutual funds management firm that invests in companies based in part on whether the companies share its values, has been pressing Wal-Mart to pull women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan and Glamour from checkout lanes and put them back into the magazine rack. Arthur Ally, president of the Timothy Plan, said that he saw magazines like Maxim and FHM as ‘a level worse. It is soft-core pornography,’ he said. ‘It’s very addictive and leads to harder stuff.'”
Speech can only be free if it can be heard. And “censorship”, legal and/or de-facto always starts by prohibiting something not too many people won’t object to. The shifting of acceptance boundaries is what makes this process so dangerous.
But Wal-Mart’s decision may not prove to become a cultural disaster. Maybe, their decision will even foster digital literacy in those regions where the retailler does indeed possess the power to prevent people from buying the magazine of their choice.
For in the internet, there will always be a free shelf.