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Freadom_logoChris Finan is President of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE). For more info, visit www.abffe.com.

Political courage is usually in short supply, but there was a lot of it on display at a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on March 6.

Representative Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, and three other members of Congress dared to be the first to call for changes in the law called the USA Patriot Act. They announced the introduction of HR 1157, the Freedom to Read Protection Act.

Now major industry organizations, including the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE),the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, the Freedom to Read Foundation, the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, the PEN American Center, and the Publishers Marketing Association, are involved in a campaign to support HR 1157 and restore the protection for bookstore privacy that the USA Patriot Act stripped away. At this writing, the Freedom to Read Protection Act has 63 co-sponsors in Congress, including several Republicans. The list is growing fast and all shades of political opinion are represented–liberal, conservative, and moderate.

The Law that Lets Big Brother Watch What You Read

As Representative Sanders noted, “One of the cornerstones of our democracy is the right of Americans to criticize their government and to read printed materials without fear of government monitoring and intrusion.” Explaining that this right is threatened by Section 215 of the Patriot Act, Sanders asked an all-important question: “Who would have thought that in 21st century America, the government could gain access to library circulation rec
and bookseller customer records with no evidence that the person whose records they are getting is involved in any wrongdoing, that all of this would be handled through a secret government court, and that librarians and booksellers would be compelled by the law not to let anyone know that the government had swooped in to get their records?

“We do not win against terrorists by abandoning our most basic civil liberties,” he concluded. “We cannot be an example of freedom for the world when our own government is spying on what Americans are reading.”

Congressman Sanders and his colleagues were careful to point out that the Freedom to Read Protection Act does not exempt booksellers and librarians from normal law enforcement inquiries. What it does is: (a) remove bookstore and library records from the broad category of “business records” that may be searched by the FBI virtually at will under the Patriot Act and (b) restore the protections for customer privacy that existed prior to the passage of the act.

From one perspective, the introduction of the Freedom to Read Protection Act is part of the normal process of fine-tuning legislation after it has become law. The Patriot Act needs more fine-tuning than most new laws, however, having been approved by Congress only six weeks after the September 11 attacks, with very few senators or representatives knowing much about what was in it. At the March 6, 2003 press conference, Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) said that his copy of the bill was still warm from the copying machine when the vote occurred.

How to Restore Protection for Readers’ Privacy

The Freedom to Read Protection Act is going to have a more difficult time winning passage than most corrective legislation because, with concerns about the threat of terrorism intensifying, many members of Congress will insist that compromising bookstore and library privacy is a necessary trade-off for protecting the country’s security.

Nevertheless, there have been encouraging signs. It is clear that Congressman Sanders is deeply committed to the bill. His staff is working hard to line up still more co-sponsors for the legislation. In addition, the press is paying a great deal of attention to the Patriot Act’s impact on bookstore and library privacy, and some major newspapers, including TheLos Angeles Times, Detroit Free Press, Honolulu Advertiser, and Providence Journal Bulletin, have announced their support for amending Section 215, the section of the Patriot Act that the Sanders bill addresses.

At ABFFE, we are working to build support for the Freedom to Read Protection Act through a petition campaign, a newsletter for booksellers to distribute to customers, and a campaign to thank the representatives who are co-sponsoring HR 1157. It is vital to let these men and women hear that someone appreciates their courage in opposing a provision of the Patriot Act.

If your representatives are not on the list, you can e-mail them through the House of Representatives Web site (www.house.gov/representatives/find/) or call the representatives to urge them to support HR 1157.

I think it’s safe to predict that the Freedom to Read Protection Act will not be high on the Congress’s priority list during the war with Iraq. However, this doesn’t mean that we can relax our efforts to build support for the legislation. Once the war is over, we must be prepared to fight for the full restoration of our civil liberties. With your help, we have a real shot at passing the Freedom to Read Protection Act.

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