Attorney General John Ashcroft is on the campaign trail.
He is not running for office. He is trying to shore up support for the USA Patriot Act. Ashcroft is making speeches to groups all over the country in an effort to head off a growing list of amendments that have been proposed by members of Congress.
It’s a remarkable change in the political fortunes of the Patriot Act, and booksellers can claim a considerable share of the credit for calling attention to its problems.
Certainly, no one could have predicted even eight months ago that opposition to the Patriot Act would grow so quickly. It was approved with astonishing speed-just six weeks after the September 11 attacks. It passed almost unanimously. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin was the only opponent in the Senate. The vote was 357 to 66 in the House.
The Patriot Act passed so quickly that few members of Congress knew what was in it. One House member observed ruefully that when his copy of the bill reached his desk shortly before the final vote, it was still warm from the copying machine.
The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) discovered only in the final days before passage that the Patriot Act contained a provision that gives the FBI the authority to secretly obtain a list of the books purchased by a bookstore customer or borrowed by a library patron. Section 215 gives the FBI the right to search the records of anyone in connection with a foreign intelligence or terrorism investigation, even someone who is not suspected of committing a crime. It also bars booksellers and librarians from reporting the fact that their records have been searched.
We were deeply concerned about the chilling effect of such unprecedented power to inquire into what people were reading. But it was impossible to get much attention for our concerns at a time when anthrax had contaminated the offices of members of Congress and another terrorist attack appeared imminent.
We didn’t have much luck even six months later when ABFFE joined ACLU, the National Coalition Against Censorship and several other free expression groups in holding a press conference in Washington, D.C. Senator Feingold and the late Patsy Mink, a representative from Hawaii, joined us in a hearing room on Capitol Hill. Only one reporter showed up.
That’s pretty much where things stood until March of this year when Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was persuaded by a group of Vermont booksellers and librarians to introduce the Freedom to Read Protection Act (H.R. 1157). The Sanders bill exempts bookstore and library records from Section 215. The FBI can still obtain the records. However, the requests are subject to the same safeguards that normally apply when the police subpoena bookstore and library records. Even then, we did not expect the support for H.R. 1157 to grow as quickly as it did. It was soon apparent that Section 215 had struck a deep nerve in booksellers and librarians. In May, ABFFE released a statement supporting the Sanders bill that included the names of over 30 book and library groups as well as a number of large companies, including Barnes & Noble, Borders Group, Ingram Book Group and Baker & Taylor.
Soon newspapers were carrying stories about the issue, and public outrage began to grow. Congress is beginning to reflect that concern. The bill currently has 141 co-sponsors, including both Democrats and Republicans.
It wasn’t just Section 215 that was making people nervous. Civil libertarians raised the alarm about Section 213, which authorizes the FBI to conduct secret searches in foreign intelligence investigations. They also criticized the expansion of the FBI’s power to engage in wiretapping. More than 200 communities around the country and several state legislatures have now announced their support for curbing some of the powers granted by the Patriot Act.
In July, pressure to amend the Patriot Act produced a stunning result. By a vote of 309-118, the House voted to bar the Justice Department from executing “sneak and peak” search warrants. This was the first restriction on the Patriot Act to pass the House. The attorney general hit the road very soon after.
Meanwhile, pressure continues to grow to amend Section 215. Several bills have now been introduced in the Senate that have the same purpose as the Freedom to Read Protection Act: Barbara Boxer’s Library and Bookseller Protection Act (S. 1158) and Feingold’s Library, Bookseller and Personal Data Privacy Act (S. 1507). Perhaps the most significant political development recently has been the introduction of corrective legislation by Republicans. Senator Larry Craig of Idaho is the sponsor of the Security and Freedom Ensured Act (S. 1709), which includes the language of the Feingold bill. Representative Otter has introduced a companion bill in the House, H.R. 3352.
The 2003 Congressional session closed without any of this legislation passing. However, we have laid a solid foundation for progress in the 2004 Congressional session.
ABFFE is asking booksellers to help in two ways. First, if you have not done so already, please write or call your members of Congress. If they are already co-sponsors of the Freedom to Read Protection Act or another corrective bill, thank them! It is not easy to support civil liberties at times like this, and your representatives need to know that it is appreciated. If they are not supporting the legislation yet, ask them to become a co-sponsor. To see a list of the co-sponsors of the Freedom to Read Protection Act, use this link,http://news.bookweb.org/freeexpression/1257.html
Co-sponsors of H.R. 3352 and the Senate bills are available through the Library of Congress Web site, THOMAS, To look up contact information about your members of Congress, click here, http://www.house.gov and here http://www.senate.gov
Second, if you’re not already a member of ABFFE, please join today. ABFFE is the bookseller’s voice in the fight against censorship. ABFFE helped pay for the defense of Kramerbooks and the Tattered Cover Book Store when they faced government efforts to obtain their records. A sponsor of Banned Books Week, we are actively involved in a wide range of issues that affect the First Amendment rights of booksellers and their customers.
Dues are $35 for individuals and $100 for bookstores. You can join through our online store, https://www.abffe.com/Merchant2/merchant.mv, by sending a check to ABFFE, 139 Fulton St., Suite 302, New York, NY 10038, or by calling us at (212) 587-4025 with your credit card.
For those of you who have already supported the fight to restore the protections for bookstore privacy, thanks!
Chris Finan, president American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression email@example.com