ABFFE to Senate Judiciary Committee: 215 Will Create Chilling Effect

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) sent letters dated November 14 to Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) expressing the belief that Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act "will create a chilling effect on the exercise of First Amendment rights." The letters were included in the record of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, "America After 9/11: Freedom Preserved or Freedom Lost?" which was held Tuesday, November 18. Leahy is the ranking member, and Hatch the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Chris Finan, president of ABFFE, is pleased that the committee held a hearing on this important issue. "We are encouraged that the Senate Judiciary Committee is giving serious attention to the issue of civil liberties since 9/11," he told BTW. "Hopefully, this will help lay the groundwork for providing new protections for free speech, including amending Section 215." The act's Section 215 gives law enforcement officials broad authority to demand that libraries or bookstores turn over books, records, papers, and documents.

In the letter, Finan wrote: "America's booksellers believe that Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act represents a serious threat to First Amendment rights. Freedom of speech depends on the freedom to explore ideas privately. Customers in a bookstore must feel free to request books about health, religion, politics, the law, or any other subject without fear that their privacy will be violated. Without privacy, they lose the freedom to buy and borrow the books they need to form and express opinions.… Section 215 eliminates the safeguards that normally apply when the police subpoena bookstore records."

The ABFFE letter stressed that "unfortunately, our fear is not theoretical. Over the last five years, there has been a growing effort by police to obtain the records of what [bookstore] customers are reading." Among the five examples cited in the letter, Finan noted how, in 1998, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr subpoenaed Monica Lewinsky's book purchase records from two Washington-area bookstores and how, in 2000, police in Denver obtained a warrant to search the records of the Tattered Cover Book Store in connection with the investigation of a drug suspect. "It is significant that in three of these cases the courts intervened to protect First Amendment rights," the letter stated. "This could not occur under Section 215, which denies booksellers an opportunity to petition a court to suppress an order for customer records."

At Tuesday's hearing, Hatch commented, "An awful lot of criticism [leveled at the Patriot Act] is not in the Patriot Act; in fact, it has nothing to do with the Patriot Act," as reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

However, Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA) argued that the Patriot Act needs to be changed to avoid violating the guarantees provided in the Constitution, the AJC article noted, and quoted Barr as saying the "aura of secrecy" surrounding the government's use of the law makes it difficult to cite specific examples of abuse. --David Grogan