We have been following the growing distaste with provisions of the Patriot Act for some time – librarians and book sellers have been particularly displeased with the provisions that allow the government to demand book loan and purchase records.
32 organizations representing booksellers, librarians, book publishers and authors have signed on in support of Vermont Congressman Bernie Sander’s Freedom to Read Protection Act (H.R. 1157):
- The countries two largest booksellers, Barnes & Noble and Borders are among the groups supporting the legislation. Sanders’ bill restores the protections for the privacy of book and library records that were eliminated by the U.S.A. Patriot Act.
Sanders said, “I welcome the support of the book community on this important piece of legislation. The Freedom to Read Protection Act, which has the support of Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives, will establish once again that libraries and bookstores are safe from overreaching government intrusion.”
Specifically, Sanders’ legislation would exempt libraries and bookstores from Section 215 of the Patriot Act. H.R. 1157 will still allow law enforcement officials to subpoena bookstore and library records when crucial to an investigation, but the courts will exercise their normal scrutiny in reviewing these requests. Sanders’ legislation is co-sponsored by 95 members of the House, including eight Republicans.
Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression said, “The book community is united in believing that Section 215 of the Patriot Act threatens First Amendment freedom by making people afraid that their purchase and borrowing records may be monitored by the government. We applaud Congressman Sanders for his leadership on this issue.”
Sanders concluded, ” 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. This tri-partisan legislation will go a long way in protecting the privacy and First Amendment rights of all Americans.”
See the full list of supporters here.
Sanders wrote this op-ed on the matter for the LA Times last week:
- An unnecessary chill has descended on the nation’s libraries and bookstores: The books you buy and read are now subject to government inspection and review.
….Until the Patriot Act, the FBI had the authority to obtain bank records, credit records and certain other commercial records only upon some showing that the records requested related to a suspected member of a terrorist group. The Patriot Act expanded the FBI’s authority in two ways. First, it gave the FBI the authority to seize any records of any entity. Most members of Congress probably didn’t realize it, but this included libraries and bookstores. Second, Congress dropped the prior requirement that the FBI actually have some evidence that the person whose records it sought was a member of a terrorist group or otherwise involved in terrorism.
….The new powers appear to have been used already — a University of Illinois survey shows libraries were targeted at least 175 times in the year after 9/11 — yet the FBI refuses to explain how or why.
….Such is the state of affairs that librarians in California and across the country are putting up signs warning patrons that the FBI may be snooping among their records. These librarians, along with booksellers, are particularly concerned because the proceeding for these warrants takes place in a closed court and the new law has a built-in gag order: Those who are asked to turn over records are not allowed to say that the search has occurred or that records were given to the government. In addition, under this provision the courts are no longer an arbiter of individual rights because judges are not allowed to determine whether there is probable cause to justify such sweeping searches.
….Because this new legislation will allow the FBI to use the constitutional routes at its disposal, including criminal subpoenas, to get library and bookstore records, it will not tie the hands of investigators. At the same time it will require – as had always been the case – that investigations be focused and that the reasons behind them be subject to judicial scrutiny.
Before Congress begins any discussion of new powers for the FBI, as some in Washington are advocating, we must first focus on correcting the unchecked authority the Patriot Act already grants the government.
I agree with this entirely, especially since it has been so difficult to get a simple declaration of usage of these provisions from the Justice Department. Only the guilty have anything to fear? Wrong, we all should fear the chill of unaccountable government action against us.