Borders Books and Music, one of the country's largest bookstore chains, has refused to stock the latest edition of Free Inquiry magazine because the issue includes controversial cartoons that spurred violent and sometimes deadly protests in parts of Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.
A Borders spokeswoman said the company declined to sell the Amherst-based publication this month out of concern for the safety of employees and customers.
The cartoons, originally published in a Danish newspaper then in several other European publications, feature unflattering depictions of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
Muslim demonstrators responded in February by burning Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria, and scores of people have been killed in protests over several weeks.
Only a handful of U.S. newspapers chose to reprint the cartoons.
But editors of the bimonthly -- published by the Council for Secular Humanism in Amherst -- decided to publish four of the 12 cartoons as an act of solidarity with European newspapers that had demonstrated their commitment to free expression and a free press. The editors also said the images needed to be seen because no religious teaching or institution should be immune from criticism.
This week, a Canada-based distributor of Free Inquiry informed editors that Borders would not sell the latest issue in its stores.
Beth Bingham, a company spokeswoman, confirmed that Wednesday.
"We feel strongly for the safety and security of our employees and customers," Bingham said.
She said the company operates more than 475 Borders and 650 Waldenbooks stores in the United States, though not all regularly carry the magazine.
The Borders stores usually stock as many as 1,000 copies of Free Inquiry, and the chain typically is the magazine's largest newsstand retailer, said Tom Flynn, editor.
Barnes & Noble, the magazine's second-largest retailer, also expressed some concerns about the April-May issue, printed March 16, Flynn said. A distributor told Flynn more than a week ago that the chain was reviewing the magazine, but the issue so far has not been refused, he said.
The magazine hadn't become available as of Wednesday at the Barnes & Noble stores on Transit Road and Niagara Falls Boulevard stores in Amherst, which usually carry Free Inquiry. Company officials could not be reached to comment.
Flynn said he was disappointed by what he described as "exaggerated concerns" that were not in the best interests of readers.
He noted that publication of the cartoons in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Austin American-Statesman had not provoked any violent response in the United States.
"This is the first time any retailer has declined to carry one of our issues because of content," he said.
Bingham said she did not know whether Borders stores in Philadelphia and Austin had refused to sell those newspapers on the day the cartoons ran.
Paul Kurtz, Free Inquiry's editor in chief, said Borders' decision was a disservice to free speech.
"Cartoons often provide an important form of political satire," Kurtz said. "To refuse to distribute a publication because of fear of vigilante violence is to undermine freedom of press -- so vital for our democracy."
Free Inquiry has a subscription base of about 30,000; another 7,000 magazines are sold through newsstands, mostly in major metropolitan markets and college towns, Flynn said.
The latest issue can be ordered at the magazine's Web site, www.freeinquiry.net.
News Staff Reporter Anthony Cardinale contributed to this report.