As I sit here at my desk this third week of April the War in Iraq, or at least the first phase of it, is just about over. Whether Saddam is dead or alive, “regime change” of some sort is happening, whether eventually to the United States’ liking or not remains to be seen. Probably like most of us over the last few weeks, I have been consumed by the news of the war and the whole issue of the Patriot Act has faded to the background. War always seems to supersede everything else. But in fact the Patriot Act is very much alive and in the consciousness of many people. In early March, Vermont’s own independent congressman and several others introduced The Freedom to Read Protection Act , a resolution that would change several aspects of the current act especially in regards to the right of reading. A number of cites, including Montpelier, have passed resolutions calling for changes and now our State Legislature is considering a resolution as well.
There has been a lot written on the Patriot Act so I am not going to add much here as to the specifics of the Act. However, it should be known that it was passed hastily right after September 11 when the country was reeling from the devastating attacks so that very little debate or thought went into its passage by Congress. The part of it that is truly threatening to bookstores and libraries and their patrons (that is, just about everybody) is Section 215.
Section 215 has a number of pernicious aspects. Unlike a normal subpoena, a bookstore or library cannot object in court. There have been several cases where bookstores were served with a subpoena regarding criminal investigations. When the stores refused to turn over their records of books bought the courts decided in their favor. Kramer Books in Washington, D.C. and The Tattered Cover in Colorado are two famous cases. But under the new Act, the courts are no longer of any help, and a bookstore can be required to turn over records immediately without publicly (or privately) telling anyone. The person whose records are being sought may not be notified and that person does not even have to be suspected of committing a crime. You better watch what you read, in other words.
We were concerned about this at the bookstore. We had the information that the Government would want if it were to approach us and we did not feel comfortable about this. To defy would put us in jeopardy and to comply in turning over records if asked would seem likes a real breach of confidence to our loyal customers. So, on January 23 we purged all our records of customer purchases we had on file through our Readers Club. Our Readers’ Club consists of over 3000 members. Our computer system enabled us to not only keep track of the dollar amount of sales but the titles purchased as well. These titles went back a number of years. When we took them out of our system we lost a lot of data. Why would we do that? This was data that could be used potentially for marketing the right books to the right customers. A prevalent buzz phrase in business these days is, “know your customers.” Certainly, destroying these records would not help us know our customers or at least their particular reading habits.
But one thing we do know about our customers is their rightful demand for privacy. The more we learned about the Patriot Act, and particularly Section 215 of it, the more it seemed that this privacy could be put in jeopardy. It has always been a principle of this bookstore and most other bookstores as well to protect this right of confidentiality and to fight against censorship, whether of the outside kind or self-censorship arising out of fear. We did nothing wrong in destroying records ahead of time as there is no law demanding records be kept. However, under the new law we would have no choice but to turn over records and to do it secretly with no recourse to a court of law such as would be the case in a normal subpoena such as I mentioned earlier.
We understand that the threat of terrorism is real but this focus on bookstores and libraries is an ill-conceived notion and not helpful. Think what the acronym means for the USAPATRIOT Act. It stands for “UNITING AND STRENGTHENING AMERICA BY PROVIDING APPROPRIATE TOOLS REQUIRED TO INTERCEPT AND OBSTRUCT TERRORISM.’ By calling this law the “Patriot Act” is was sure to resonate in every good American’s heart. By being against this, are we being unpatriotic? Does the Patriot Act unite and strengthen America by eroding our very basic civil liberties to read? By making us afraid to read certain things because the Government might just happen to want to check up on us? An educated public does not mean an indoctrinated public. Libraries and bookstores are places where people can attain the means to become better educated and are important pillars of our democracy. Imagine a nation with no free bookstores or libraries.
What are some of these appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism? Unlike before, the FBI can now investigate a citizen even though it does not have to say that the person was connected to a foreign power or involved in a criminal activity. Could a case be built against an individual because he or she was reading material the government might deem offensive or subversive? It seems possible. Under Section 215 librarians and booksellers are prevented from even telling their customers that they are under investigation. In fact, they are compelled to keep quiet about the whole process.
Back to censorship, education, and democracy. If patrons begin to self-censor their library use and bookstore purchases because of fear of government surveillance, then their freedom to access information is limited and we have a less well informed democracy. The right of privacy so implicit in the 1st and 4th Amendments of the Constitution is being threatened here. The 4th Amendment protects from unwarranted searches and seizures and the right of free assembly is guaranteed in the First Amendment. There is no right to privacy unless you have the right to assemble. Protecting the Constitution is generally thought of as keeping the country strong, something the Patriot Act does not do despite its claim to “unite and strengthen.”
Independent bookstores across the country are looking at this issue in many ways. For some, they don’t keep records anyway so it is not a problem. For others, their purchase data is important for their customer service and marketing and they cannot afford to do what we have done. I totally respect this decision. Bookstores should not have to purge records. The law should be changed.
Last summer, Senator Leahy questioned the Justice Department about its expanded search of bookstores and libraries under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Leahy wrote, “Do you think that library and bookstore patrons have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the titles of books they have purchased from a bookstore or borrowed from a library?” Assistant Attorney General Daniel J. Bryant wrote back “Any right of privacy possessed by library and bookstore patrons in such information is necessarily and inherently limited since, by the nature of these transactions, the patron is reposing that information in the library or bookstore and assumes the risk that the entity may disclose it to another.” Well, Mr. Bryant has it all wrong. No one assumes that risk. What our patrons assume, in fact, is the exact opposite–confidentiality and their right to read whatever they want without the fear of intrusion by anyone.
The unintended media attention we got from our little action in Montpelier was incredible, as were the many responses from across the country. The AP story ran in hundreds of papers and likewise the television recording apparently played across the country as well. Consequently we received so many positive emails that it became a job just to read them all. People were so grateful to us that it was embarrassing. In one case we received a check for $100 with the simple inscription, “good work.” We turned that over to the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. We also received many new book orders from people who no longer wanted to take the risk of ordering from Amazon or the other giants. (One negative email accused us of creating a huge publicity ruse. If only I were so smart.) . What this all showed was that generally people see the Patriot Act for what it is–a threat to the basic civil liberties which Americans across the political spectrum hold so dearly.
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