The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) has joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Library Association, more than 80 civil liberties, government reform, and digital advocacy groups, and several companies in protesting the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance of the telephone records and Internet activity of American citizens. In a letter sent to members of Congress, ABFFE and the other signatories criticized a program of “blanket surveillance” by NSA, which includes the collection of the telephone records of all customers of Verizon under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.
“Booksellers, librarians, and other members of the publishing community have been trying to amend Section 215 for years because it threatens the privacy of bookstore and library records,” said ABFFE President Chris Finan. “The fact that NSA is collecting the phone records of every Verizon customer in the U.S. demonstrates that the threat to our privacy is very real. How can we speak and associate freely if we fear the government is watching us?”
Section 215 eliminated the necessity in terrorism investigations for the government to show that there is “probable cause” to believe that a person is engaged in criminal acts before searching his or her records. The government can use Section 215 to obtain any records that are “relevant” to an investigation, including the records of people who are not suspected of committing crimes.
Booksellers and librarians have been concerned about Section 215’s effect on the right to privacy in a person’s choice of reading materials since 2001, when the Patriot Act authorized the government to seize their records and impose a gag barring them from revealing an order to their customers and patrons.
In 2004, the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, and PEN American Center created the Campaign for Reader Privacy to restore the safeguards for the privacy of reader records. They conducted a national petition campaign to support the Freedom to Read Protection Act, which was introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who was then a House member, as well as other legislation.
Section 215 must be reauthorized periodically. In 2005, the Senate approved a reauthorization bill requiring the government to demonstrate that it has facts indicating a person is a suspected terrorist before it can obtain a Section 215 order. However, the change was dropped in a conference committee. Section 215 was reauthorized in 2011 for another four years.
This week’s coalition letter renews the call for reform of Section 215 and urges Congress to investigate and report the extent of the government’s domestic spying and to hold accountable public officials who are responsible for unconstitutional surveillance.