With Booksellers' Help, CRP Looks to Resuscitate Reader Privacy

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In mid-February, the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, and PEN American Center launched the Campaign for Reader Privacy (CRP), a petition drive that calls for Congress to amend Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. And booksellers participating in the campaign who spoke to BTW say it is vital that all independent booksellers join the cause -- and now, before it's too late. "I think it's a critical time to do this [petition campaign]," said Neal Coonerty of Bookshop Santa Cruz in California. "We need to bring political pressure and make this an issue in this election year."

The goal of CRP is to present one million signatures to members of Congress in support of legislation to amend Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Section 215 amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to give the FBI vastly expanded authority to search business records, including the records of bookstores and libraries. Under the Act, the FBI may request the records secretly; it is not required to prove that there is "probable cause" to believe the person whose records are being sought has committed a crime; and 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. (To read more about CRP's launch, click here.)

At Goerings Book Store in Gainesville, Florida, co-owner Tom Rider said the campaign is going "very well. I sent off two batches [petitions to ABA] so far. And we'll continue to do that. It's going over well here." He estimates that he's collected approximately 900 signatures thus far.

Rider noted that he simply placed a sign on his front door and keeps the petition at the front counter. The sign is all that is needed to garner signatures, he reported. "People walk in and ask, 'Where's the petition?'" he said. "It's something that people feel strongly about. The Tattered Cover case guaranteed the right to withhold customer records ... the Patriot Act reversed all that."

Susan Bachrach of Moby Dickens in Taos, New Mexico, said that participating in CRP and signing the petition is simply the "right thing to do. It's our constitutional right to have privacy."

Bachrach noted that Taos is a very liberal community, and residents are "eager to sign" the petition. She says the store keeps the petitions right at the front desk so customers see them when they check out.

Bookshop Santa Cruz's Coonerty reported, "People are grateful to have a way to voice their disapproval for [Section] 215." He added that he does not need to explain the issue to customers -- they already know due to press coverage in both the local newspaper and in the bookstore's newsletter. "We keep [the petitions] right at the cash register, and have a sign in the front window." (For bookstores seeking press coverage in their local media, ABA has created a press release template that they adapt and send to various news outlets. To access the sample release, click here.)

Rider said the movement to amend Section 215 "has a broad spectrum of support" in the South, where there's been a long-standing mentality of "get the government off our back," he explained. "This appeals to a much wider range of people than other First Amendment issues. The idea that the government would deny them privacy of their book selections -- that's something they don't like."

ABA is asking booksellers participating in the campaign to periodically (every few hundred signatures) mail their petitions to ABA, Restore Reader Privacy, Attn.: Oren Teicher, 828 South Broadway, Tarrytown, NY 10591, rather than wait until the end of the campaign. Additional petition pads may be ordered by calling ABA's Information Department at (800) 637-0037, ext. 1292 or 1293, or for a downloadable PDF of the petition, click here. --David Grogan