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Chelsea Green Publishing, Sen. Elizabeth Warren lay out cases in COVID-19 book lawsuit

Published: 4/20/2022 11:23:18 PM
Modified: 4/20/2022 11:22:03 PM

Attorneys quarreled on Wednesday over whether a 1963 Supreme Court case involving Rhode Island booksellers had any relevance to a White River Junction book publisher’s lawsuit against U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

The hearing in Washington Western District Court in Seattle was the first in Chelsea Green Publishing’s lawsuit against the senator, alleging she violated the First Amendment by stifling free speech when she wrote a public letter to Amazon condemning the bookseller’s sale of the Chelsea Green book, The Truth About COVID-19.

The plaintiffs include Chelsea Green; Joseph Mercola, the book’s author; co-author Ronald Cummins; and anti-vaccine figurehead Robert Kennedy Jr., who wrote a forward for the book.

They are seeking unspecified damages in the wake of Warren’s September 2021 letter, which they say caused Barnes & Noble to stop selling the book, among other effects.

Margo Baldwin, Chelsea Green’s president and publisher, has received widespread criticism for her publishing house’s sale of books promoting COVID-19 misinformation, including Mercola’s.

“This case is a simple one,” said Jed Rubenfeld, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “We tread here on First Amendment grounds.”

Chelsea Green’s argument hinges primarily on Bantam Books v. Sullivan, a 1963 Supreme Court case in which a Rhode Island state commission threatened booksellers who sold books deemed “objectionable” by the state.

The Supreme Court decided that Rhode Island was curtailing legal speech through threat of litigation in a form of censorship known as “prior restraint.” Warren’s actions, the plaintiffs argue, constitute prior restraint.

Rubenfeld also took issue with Warren calling the Chelsea Green book “misinformation.”

“I wasn’t going to get into this,” he said, but “Senator Warren doesn’t come forward with a single false statement of fact from the book.”

Ben Stafford, an attorney for Warren, pointed out that, unlike in Bantam v. Sullivan, the senator did not accuse Chelsea Green or Mercola of any crimes nor threaten Amazon with litigation.

Rather, Warren requested more information from Amazon about its promotion of The Truth about COVID-19, as well as its policies about COVID-19 misinformation.

“Government officials also have a right to speak,” Stafford said. “They have a right to criticize, a right to cajole.”

Stafford also pointed to a similar lawsuit against U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., brought by the conservative American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, after Schiff wrote a letter to Amazon expressing dismay about its promotion of vaccine misinformation in 2019.

That lawsuit was thrown out, Stafford said, and he asked Judge Barbara Rothstein to do the same in Warren’s case.

While Warren’s defense team has requested the case to be dismissed, the plaintiffs have requested Warren publicly retract her letter.

The judge declined to make a decision from the bench, and said that both parties would be hearing from her “soon.”

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