This editorial was originally published December 12, 2001 in the Rocky Mountain News.
THE ISSUE: State Supreme Court hears arguments on releasing bookstore records.
OUR VIEW: They should remain private
If you value your constitutional right to read what you please without worrying about government snooping, you owe a vote of thanks to the Tattered Cover bookstore for its spirited defense of its customers' privacy.
The North Metro Drug Task Force wants the bookstore to hand over an invoice that may, they believe, reveal the name of the customer who ordered two books on how to run a clandestine meth lab. The books were found when the bedroom lab was raided.
Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover, believes surrendering the invoice to the city of Thornton threatens the First Amendment rights of everyone who buys and reads books. The Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments on the case December 5, in an unusual session held before a student audience in the Brighton High School auditorium. We hope both the students and the justices were persuaded that Meskis is right.
The First Amendment is relevant in this case because the reason police want to link the books to a suspect in the case is the books' content; they're how-to books for committing a crime. If police sought hardware-store invoices for the glassware found in the raid, there would be no constitutional problem.
Meskis doesn't claim, nor do prior court rulings establish, that information about what books people buy enjoys absolute constitutional protection. Rather--as both parties to the case agreed in asking the Supreme Court to hear the case directly--the issue is how courts should balance an individual's right to read certain books, and the bookstore's right to sell them, "against law enforcement's desire to aggressively investigate criminal violations."
To overcome the legal presumption that law enforcement can't demand access to book-buying records, officers have to demonstrate that they have a compelling need for that specific information and that they have exhausted every other method of obtaining equivalent information.
The invoice record at issue can't meet either test. It may not relate to the suspect under investigation and it may not include the two meth books. And even if it does, it is not illegal to buy, to own, or to read them.
Furthermore, at the time the task force obtained its search warrant, it hadn't completed analyzing physical evidence from the lab or interviewing other suspects, so it couldn't possibly have known that the Tattered Cover's records were essential.
If the Supreme Court were to accept Thornton's arguments in such a case, law enforcement agencies would gain authority to go after book-buying records for anyone involved, however innocently, in a criminal case. In fact, the task force originally sought records of all books purchased by the suspect. The trial court limited them to just a single invoice, and it is the trial court's ruling that the Supreme Court should overturn.
Reprinted with permission of the Rocky Mountain News.