A group of authors and publisher Chelsea Green filed suit against Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren this week, alleging that a letter she sent to Amazon expressing concern over their role in spreading Covid-19 misinformation violates their First Amendment rights. The suit revolves around controversial claims repeated in the book The Truth About COVID-19: Exposing the Great Reset, Lockdowns, Vaccine Passports, and the New Normal, written by Joseph Mercola and Ronnie Cummins and with a foreword by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
In a September 7 letter to Amazon, Warren complained that the book “perpetuates dangerous conspiracies about COVID-19 and false and misleading information about vaccines,” yet was among the top products consistently featured on Amazon when her staff searched for “Covid-19” and "vaccine." Warren asked Amazon to explore how the company’s algorithm was working to preference the book in search results, and suggested that the company’s role in allowing “the spread of falsehoods or the sale of inappropriate products” was “unethical, unacceptable, and potentially unlawful,” according to the letter.
“Given the seriousness of this issue, I ask that you perform an immediate review of Amazon’s algorithms," Warren’s letter says "and, within 14 days, provide both a public report on the extent to which Amazon’s algorithms are directing consumers to books and other products containing COVID-19 misinformation and a plan to modify these algorithms so that they no longer do so.”
But in their complaint, lawyers for Mercola, Cummins, Kennedy, and Chelsea Green argue that “the First Amendment guarantees that books challenging governmental orthodoxy can be sold without fear of governmental intimidation or reprisal.” The lawyers claim that Warren’s letter runs afoul of a 60-year-old Supreme Court ruling in Bantam Books 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 plaintiffs are asking for an order declaring Warren’s conduct to be unlawful, as well as injunctive relief, damages, and a public retraction of her letter.
“Senator Warren’s letter makes plain that it is calling on Amazon to de-platform the books she deems objectionable by lauding other Big Tech behemoths that, in response to similar governmental pressure, now block, remove, and demote all so-called ‘Covid misinformation,’” the complaint states. The complaint goes on to argue that, even if Warren’s claims of misinformation were correct (which the authors dispute), “it would not alter the book’s constitutional protection.”
The plaintiffs say that it is “impossible” for them to know whether Amazon is now “demoting, downgrading, or otherwise suppressing” their book in light of Warren’s letter. They do allege, however, that Amazon is not listing the book “in its proper category as a medical work,” potentially decreasing sales, and that Amazon’s algorithm is apparently not recommending the book to readers whose past purchases would suggest interest in the title. Furthermore, the suit claims that Amazon notified Chelsea Green that it was refusing ads for the book, and that Barnes & Noble and independent booksellers are refusing to sell the book.
Mercola and Kennedy (who wrote the book's foreword) are on a list of 12 people dubbed “the disinformation dozen,” created by the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate. Those listed are alleged to be the top spreaders of Covid-19 misinformation, with Mercola earning the top spot on the list. A July profile in the New York Times described Mercola as “an internet-savvy entrepreneur” who “has published over 600 articles on Facebook that cast doubt on Covid-19 vaccines since the pandemic began, reaching a far larger audience than other vaccine skeptics.”