At a press conference held today in Washington, D.C., Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced federal legislation that would remove a threat to the privacy of bookstore and library records, created by the USA Patriot Act. At present, the proposed amendment, called the Freedom to Read Protection Act of 2003, has 24 co-sponsors, including Ron Paul (R-TX).
Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), hailed the amendment. "While booksellers strongly support efforts to fight terrorism, the Patriot Act gives federal authorities virtually unchecked authority to search our customers' records and raises concern that government is monitoring what people are reading," said Finan. "The Freedom to Read Protection Act will restore faith in the confidentiality of these records without harming national security."
Rep. Sanders decided to enact legislation to amend the Patriot Act after Vermont booksellers and librarians organized a letter-writing campaign last fall directed toward members of the state's U.S. congressional delegation. Two of the organizers of the campaign, Linda Ramsdell, owner of the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vermont, and president of the New England Booksellers Association, and Trina Magi, the past president of the Vermont Library Association, spoke at the press conference today. Also present was Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee (D-TX). C-SPAN 2 is scheduled to air a tape of the press conference on Saturday, March 8, at 10:30 p.m. ET; Sunday, March 9, at 7:30 p.m. ET; and Monday, March 10 at 5:30 a.m. ET.
The Patriot Act amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to give the FBI vastly expanded authority to search business records, including the records of bookstores and libraries. The FBI may request the records secretly, and it is not required to prove that there is "probable cause" to believe the person whose records are being sought has committed a crime. In addition, the bookseller or librarian who receives an order is prohibited from revealing it to anyone except those whose help is needed to produce the records.
The Freedom to Read Protection Act would bar the FBI from seeking "personally identifiable information concerning a patron of a bookseller or library" under Section 501 of FISA. The government may still attempt to subpoena this information if it can make sufficient legal showing.