By Chris Finan, ABFFE President
Political courage is usually in short supply, but there was a lot of it on display at a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 6.
Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, and three other members of Congress had the nerve to be the first to call for changes in a law called the USA Patriot Act. They announced the introduction of H.R. 1157, the Freedom to Read Protection Act.
"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 intrustion," Sanders said.
This freedom is threatened by Section 215 of the Patriot Act, he explained. "Who would have thought in 21st century America, the government could gain access to library circulation records and bookseller customer records with no evidence that the person whose records they are getting is involved in any wrongdoing, that all of this would be handled through a secret government court, and that librarians and booksellers would be compelled by the law not to let anyone know that the government had swooped in to get their records," Sanders asked.
"We do not win against terrorists by abandoning our most basic civil liberties," he concluded. "We cannot be an example of freedom for the world when our own government is spying on what Americans are reading."
Congressman Sanders and his colleagues were careful to point out that the Freedom to Read Protection Act does not exempt booksellers and librarians from normal law enforcement inquiries. What it does is to remove bookstore and library records from the broad category of "business records" that may be searched by the FBI virtually at will under the Patriot Act and to restore the protections for customer privacy that existed prior to passage of the act.
From one perspective, the introduction of the Freedom to Read Protection Act is part of the normal process of fine-tuning legislation after it has become law. The Patriot Act needs more attention than most new laws. It was approved by Congress only six weeks after the September 11 attacks, and very few senators or representatives had detailed knowledge of what was in it. At the March 6 press conference, Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) said that his copy of the bill was still warm from the copying machine when the vote occurred.
But the Freedom to Read Protection Act is going to have a more difficult time winning passage than most corrective legislation. The concern about the threat of terrorism is intensifying as the country goes to war in Iraq. Many members of Congress will insist that compromising bookstore and library privacy is a necessary trade-off for protecting the country's security.
Nevertheless, there have been encouraging signs in the two weeks since the introduction of H.R. 1157. It is clear that Congressman Sanders is deeply committed to the bill. His staff is working very hard to line up co-sponsors for the legislation and has already succeeded in enlisting 44. Significantly, this number includes three Republicans. Because the Republicans control both the House and the Senate, Republican support is critical.
In addition, the issue of the Patriot Act's impact on bookstore and library privacy continues to receive a great deal of press attention, and several major newspapers have announced their support for amending Section 215, including the Los Angeles Times, Detroit Free Press, Honolulu Advertiser, and Providence Journal Bulletin.
There are two important things that booksellers should do at this time to support the Freedom to Read Protection Act. If your congress member is one of the co-sponsors of H.R. 1157, please thank him or her by e-mail or fax. You can access a list of the co-sponsors at http://news.bookweb.org/read/1257.
If your representative is not a co-sponsor, you should write or call asking him or her to consider sponsoring the legislation. It's generally the case that a letter from you on your store letterhead carries more weight with your representative. Given the delays in U.S. postal deliveries to Washington, D.C., following the anthrax scare, letters are best sent by fax. You can also e-mail your Congress member easily through the Web site http://www.house.gov/writerep.
Booksellers can also help build support for the Freedom to Read Protection Act by educating their customers. In the weeks ahead, ABFFE will be distributing information to assist you.
I think it is safe to predict that the Freedom to Read Protection Act will not be high on the Congress' priority list during the war with Iraq. However, this doesn't mean that we can relax our efforts to build support for the legislation. Once the war is over, we must be prepared to fight for the full restoration of our civil liberties.