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Jeff Bezos Makes it Clear Where He Stands on Freedom of Speech

June 1, 2016, 5:02 PM UTC
Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry deliver remarks during the opening ceremony of the newspaper's new location January 28, 2016 in Washington, DC.
Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry deliver remarks during the opening ceremony of the newspaper's new location January 28, 2016 in Washington, DC.
Photograph by Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

When Jeff Bezos acquired the Washington Post, a newspaper with a long and star-studded journalistic history, many wondered what kind of commitment—if any—Amazon’s founder and CEO would have to press freedom and journalism’s other core principles. In an interview at the Code technology conference in California on Tuesday, Bezos made it clear that he is as committed to those ideals as any newspaper publisher or media CEO, if not more so.

When he was asked about Peter Thiel’s campaign against Gawker Media, in which the Silicon Valley billionaire has said he wants to put the media company out of business by funding multiple lawsuits against it, Bezos said he didn’t support this kind of behavior. And he was unequivocal in his support of the right to free speech.

“The most important thing to remember is that beautiful speech doesn’t need protection—it’s ugly speech that needs protection,” the Amazon CEO said. “Somebody is going to write something very ugly, and certain people will say they need to be punished for that ugly speech. But if you step back and think about what a great society we have, a big part of it is the fact that we have these cultural norms that allow people to say really ugly things. We don’t have to like it. We don’t have to invite those people to our dinner parties. But you should let them say it.”



That’s a far better description of why free speech matters, and what the First Amendment is supposed to protect, than most of the defenders of Thiel’s attack on Gawker—the vast majority of whom come from Silicon Valley. Other than Bezos, the only technology billionaire who has come out against Thiel is eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar.

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“This country has the best free speech protections in the world because of the Constitution but also because of our cultural norms,” Bezos said. “You don’t want to create any climate of fear or chill with respect to those free speech norms.” In talking about the motivation for Thiel’s anti-Gawker campaign, which appears to be revenge for articles that invaded his privacy, the Amazon founder paraphrased Confucius: “Seek revenge and you should dig two graves—one for yourself.”

Bezos hasn’t always been seen as such a staunch defender of a free press. Amazon (AMZN) has been criticized in the past for doing very unfriendly things such as deleting copies of books from people’s Kindle readers (ironically, one of the books deleted was George Orwell’s 1984). The company has also reacted badly to stories about business practices at Amazon, including a New York Times feature, and employees have said that they face termination if they speak to the media about working conditions.

Thiel wasn’t the only case involving free speech that Bezos talked about during his interview. He also referred to the disturbing anti-press attitude of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has talked about “opening up libel laws” so he can more easily sue media outlets, and who keeps reporters penned inside corrals at his public appearances.

“One thing I think is not appropriate that Donald Trump is doing, is working to freeze or chill the media that are examining him,” Bezos said. “We live in a world where half the population on this planet, if you criticize your leader, there’s a good chance you’ll go to jail or worse. We live in this amazing democracy with amazing freedom of speech, and a presidential candidate should embrace that.”

The Amazon founder also invoked Katherine Graham, the legendary Washington Post publisher who once went toe-to-toe with an official in the Nixon government over the infamous Watergate investigation. When asked what he would do if the Post had to fight such a battle, the Amazon CEO said, “I guess the only thing I would say, with Kay Graham as my role model, I’m ready to let any of my body parts go through a big fat ringer if need be.”