White River Junction publisher sues Senator Elizabeth Warren over alleged First Amendment violations

The publisher and authors of “The Truth About COVID-19” assert that Warren violated their First Amendment rights by naming the book in a letter to Amazon requesting that the company stop the spread of COVID-19 misinformation.

by Thomas White | 1/21/22 10:16am

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Sen. Warren spoke at the College multiple times in 2019 and 2020 during her presidential run. 

by Michael Lin / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

On Sept. 7, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, sent an official letter to Amazon CEO Andrew Jassy expressing concerns that Amazon was spreading misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and treatments through its search function and “Best Seller” algorithms. The letter has earned her a lawsuit from Chelsea Green, the White River Junction-based publisher of a book related to COVID-19 Warren named in her letter. 

Warren wrote that Amazon’s failure “to prevent the spread of falsehoods or the sale of inappropriate products” is “an unethical, unacceptable, and potentially unlawful course of action from one of the nation’s largest retailers.”

In particular, Warren identified a book by osteopathic physician Joseph Mercola and Organic Consumers Association founder Ronnie Cummins, called “The Truth About COVID-19: Exposing the Great Reset, Lockdowns, Vaccine Passports, and the New Normal,” as perpetuating “dangerous conspiracies about COVID-19 and false and misleading information as vaccines.” According to Warren’s letter, the book was listed as the first result when staff searched “COVID-19” and “vaccine.”

Warren concluded the letter by requesting that Amazon perform a review of its algorithms, provide a public report on the extent to which its algorithms direct consumers to products containing COVID-19 misinformation and create a plan to modify its algorithms “so that they no longer do so.”

On Nov. 7, the publisher, Chelsea Green Publishing, and authors of the book filed suit against Warren, writing that her letter violated their First Amendment right to publish books that challenge government orthodoxy.

The suit bases its arguments on the precedent set in the Supreme Court case Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan, which held that state officials violated the First Amendment by “sending letters to booksellers warning that the sale of certain named books was potentially unlawful.”

The lawsuit claims that on Sept. 10, 2021, as a result of Warren’s letter, national bookseller chain Barnes & Noble notified the publisher of “The Truth About COVID-19” by email that it would no longer sell the work as an ebook. The suit alleges — without providing specific evidence — that Amazon either has been or is now “covertly demoting, downgrading, or otherwise suppressing” the book.

The suit acknowledges that Barnes & Noble reversed the decision several days later; neither Barnes & Noble nor Amazon are listed as defendants in the case.

Mercola wrote in an emailed statement that in bringing the suit, he hopes to protect free speech and First Amendment rights, as “preserving open and free debate is central to our democracy.” 

“I believe successful treatments for COVID-19 have been suppressed, and there are real conspiracies that have been revealed that are essential to public well-being,” he wrote.

In an official statement, Chelsea Green Publishing president and publisher Margo Baldwin criticized Warren’s letter as a move toward ideological control. 

“We’ve been here before in history and we know where it leads: tyranny!,” Baldwin wrote. “First burning books, then banning books, then disappearing books from search results. It’s all the same thing.”

Nathan J. Arnold, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that unpopular speech needs to be protected by the First Amendment.

“I do not concede that there is any ‘misinformation’ in the book, but that is irrelevant,” Arnold said. “The content is not the test — if the content is the test, then that eviscerates the First Amendment.”

He added that the suit is “very much a non-partisan issue.”

“I know that the political landscape that we’re all operating in is terribly partisan, but we don’t want unpopular opinions being suppressed by whoever’s in power,” Arnold said. “It really transcends party politics.”

Warren’s press secretary and Warren’s offices in Massachusetts, Washington and Springfield did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Lawyers representing Warren have moved for a preliminary injunction arguing that sovereign immunity bars plaintiffs’ claims, that the plaintiffs lack standing and that the Speech and Debate Clause of the Constitution protect her letter. 

Counsel for the plaintiffs has replied requesting oral arguments, and the suit currently awaits judgment, according to Arnold.

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