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Of Books, Boycotts, and Killer Whales

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My new book about killer whales in captivity -- Death at SeaWorld - does not hit stores for another five months, and already there are two online petitions (here is one) to boycott the title and urge booksellers and the media to ignore and reject the book. The petitioners believe I am exploiting the death of a SeaWorld orca trainer and unfairly accusing the company of keeping animals that may not be suitable for captivity.

As an ardent defender of the First Amendment, I support these boycotters' right to express their opinions, (though it is always advisable to read a book before attacking it.) But their fundamental right to call for censorship - i.e., demanding that bookstores not sell the book -- does not trump my fundamental right to not be censored.

Almost every day, I read things that I find objectionable, wrong-headed, dangerous or offensive. I may harbor anger and resentment toward the author, but calling for his or her silencing simply wouldn't occur to me.

For the record, my book does not center on the life of Dawn Brancheau, the SeaWorld trainer who died two years ago in Orlando, and does not try to exploit her tragic death in any way. As I recently explained to Elizabeth Batt in a Q&A at Digital Journal: "The death at SeaWorld obviously refers to Dawn, but not only to Dawn. There have been a lot of deaths at SeaWorld, two human deaths and many human injuries, and about 25 [killer] whale deaths," in 25 years.

This story was very high-profile long before I got involved with it.

There is a latent and dangerous censorship streak in Western society that, in my mind, dates back at least to the Puritanical era. That which we hate, fear, or fail to understand, we sometimes feel a need to shout down, shut out and stomp upon. But there is nothing to be gained by trying to silence those with whom we disagree -- no matter how violently. It won't work, and it speaks more of the aspiring censors than it does of the would-be censored.

I am no stranger to people who want to see me silenced. Some have even prematurely cheered the nonexistent censorship of my autism writing when they imprudently thought I had been banned at the Huffington Post.

I have been called every name imaginable, and even some quite unimaginable. My critics can call me whatever they like -- seriously -- and I will support that right. What they cannot do is call for my muzzling, and succeed.

If they win, everybody loses.

Please read the entire Digital Journal interview here

Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity (St. Martin's Press) will be released on July 17, 2012.