Patriot Acts, Then & Now: Protect Our Freedom to Read

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Patricia S. Schroeder, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers and a former Democratic representative from Colorado's 1st Congressional District, calls for the passage of the Freedom to Read Protection Act in this Op-Ed piece, which was published in the July 6 edition of the Denver Post.

By Patricia S. Schroeder

Although much has been said and written about the government using the USA Patriot Act to make an end-run around the First and Fourth Amendments, public attention is just beginning to focus on one of the act's more outrageous provisions. The Patriot Act gives the FBI access to public library circulation and Internet-use records and bookstore purchase records on the mere hint they might be "relevant" to an investigation. With virtually no legal protections in place, the government can become thought police, prying into one of our most private areas.

There is convincing evidence that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe the government has no business monitoring what we read.

A couple of years ago, the owner of Denver's Tattered Cover, one of the largest independent bookstores in the country, was ordered to turn over customer records to local law-enforcement authorities. She refused and took her fight all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court. (The dispute did not involve the Patriot Act.)

She won big, and in the course of her two-year legal battle got extensive local and national media coverage. Expressions of support poured in from every part of the country with the same message: If bookstore customers (and library patrons) are afraid the government can get easy access to their records, they'll stop reading books that may expose them to government scrutiny.

Was there ever a better example of a "chilling effect" on the exercise of First Amendment rights?

Bills have been introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate (H.R. 1157, S. 1158) to remove libraries and bookstores from the reach of the Patriot Act, allowing the government to access these records when needed, but under the watchful eye of the courts.

Every citizen who shares the belief that what we read is nobody's business but our own should immediately contact their representatives and senators and tell them to get this legislation passed.

When the Association of American Publishers inaugurated its now famous reading promotion campaign "Get Caught Reading" a couple of years ago, the idea was to remind people how much fun it is to read -- so much fun, in fact, that it ought to be illegal. Who knew Congress would take us seriously?

Hey, guys: We were only kidding. Now it's time to get serious and pass the Freedom to Read Protection Act.