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ABFE Free Speech Report

ABFE Free Speech Report, vol. 1, no. 3, June 2015

Congress Passes USA FREEDOM Act

On June 2, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the author of the USA FREEDOM Act, sat in the Senate watching his colleagues cast their votes on the most significant reform of the government’s national security authority in almost 40 years. As the balloting continued, Vermont’s other senator, Bernie Sanders, walked over to Leahy and shook his hand. In March 2003, Sanders introduced the Freedom to Read Protection Act, the first bill that attempted to restore protection for the privacy of bookstore and library records that had been eliminated by the USA PATRIOT Act. He did not support the FREEDOM Act because he believed that it did not go far enough in protecting privacy, but he recognized how much work had gone into passing it. The final vote on the FREEDOM Act was 67–32. The House had already approved the bill, and President Obama quickly signed it into law.

It was Edward Snowden, the former contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), who alerted us to the fact that the NSA was collecting the telephone records of millions of Americans using a single order issued under the PATRIOT Act. The FREEDOM Act bans the “bulk collection” of telephone records and other kinds of personal data, including bookstore and library records. It requires the government to provide information identifying a specific person, account, address, or other “specific selection term” (SST) when it applies for authority to search. The law states explicitly that the purpose of the SST is “to limit, to the greatest extent reasonably practicable, the scope of tangible things sought.”

The FREEDOM Act also includes provisions that make it easier to monitor whether the government is abusing its authority. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which secretly reviews requests for search orders, is now required to declassify its opinions whenever it can do so without jeopardizing national security and to publish an unclassified summary when it can’t. A panel of experts will be appointed to help the FISC weigh the privacy implications of its decisions. Private companies will be permitted to release more information about the secret orders they receive from the government.

Booksellers and librarians stood at Sanders’ side when he announced his intention to introduce the Freedom to Read Protection Act. We have been leaders in the fight to restore the protections for reader privacy ever since. Like Sanders, we believe further reform of the PATRIOT Act is necessary, but we are encouraged that Congress finally has taken a significant step forward.

Let Snowden Come Home

In his June 25 column in Bookselling This Week, ABFE Director Chris Finan argues that, in his opinion, the charges against Edward Snowden should be reduced so that he can return to the United States to testify about why he broke the law against revealing government secrets.  Snowden has been charged with three crimes, including two violations of the Espionage Act, a wartime measure passed in 1917.  He could be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison.  But there is no public interest exception in the Espionage Act that allows whistleblowers like Snowden to explain to a jury that that they were motivated by a desire to expose government wrongdoing.  In his column Finan explains why he believes whistleblowers should not be treated like spies.

Children’s Art Auctions Honor Judy Blume, Raise $60,000 for Kids’ Free Speech Rights

The two auctions of children’s book art that were held in conjunction with BookExpo America raised almost $60,000 to defend the free speech rights of kids. More than 170 pieces of children’s art were sold at an auction at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City on May 26, the eve of BookExpo America, and during an online auction that concluded on eBay on Monday, June 8. The auction income at the Hyatt was also generated from ticket sales and the sponsorship of the Random House Children’s Group.

A highlight of the auction at the Hyatt was a tribute to Judy Blume. More than 20 artists submitted pieces inspired by Blume’s children’s books, which for many years have been among the most frequently challenged titles in the country. ABFE presented Blume with a plaque that recognized her as a “Defender of a Kid’s Right to Read.”

The auctions raised funds for the Kids’ Right to Read Project (KRRP) and Banned Books Week, the national celebration of the freedom to read. KRRP, which supports parents, teachers, and librarians who are fighting book challenges in their communities, was cofounded by ABFE and the National Coalition Against Censorship.

KRRP Update: Latest Book Challenges

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Where: Buncombe County Schools, Asheville, North Carolina
Why: Bad language and inappropriate themes
What happened: The Kite Runner has been used in an honors English class for several years without objection. When the teacher sent a note home to inform parents of the “complex and serious” issues raised by the novel, one parent complained and the book was removed from the classroom pending a review. Two committees have recommended returning the book to the classroom, but the parent has appealed to the school board.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Where: Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
Why: Profanity and “dark themes”
What happened: Of Mice and Men has been taught in ninth-grade English classes for more than 10 years without objection; no parent has ever asked for an alternate assignment for their child. However, acting on a complaint, a review committee recommended that the book no longer be assigned to everyone in the class, relegating it to “small group instruction.” The school board voted 4–1 to override the review committee. “We need to trust the judgment of our English teachers to use this book wisely,” a board member said.

Drama by Raina Telgemeier
Where: Century Junior High School, Orland Park, Illinois
Why: LGBTQ themes
What happened: A parent has requested that this graphic novel be removed from Century Junior High School’s media center because it “promotes an LGBTQ agenda” and “encourages children to question their own identity and life choices.” Drama is on the American Library Association’s list of the 10 most challenged books over the last year. KRRP has written to the school principal to explain that withdrawing the book from the media center would violate the First Amendment because the Supreme Court has declared that school officials cannot remove books from libraries simply because they dislike the ideas they express. A decision is pending.

The American Booksellers for Free Expression, a program of the American Booksellers Association, is the bookseller's voice in the fight against censorship. Please visit our resources page for information about how booksellers can prepare for a variety of free speech emergencies or email In a crisis, call me, ABFE Director Chris Finan, at (917) 509-0340.
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