Booksellers Urged to Voice Support for Patriot Act Reform

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In a letter sent on Friday, May 8, the American Booksellers Association called on its members to contact their legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives to show their support for the USA FREEDOM Act (H.R. 2048), which limits the scope of data collected under the Patriot Act. The letter from Chris Finan, director of the American Booksellers for Free Expression, also urged booksellers to contact their senators to voice their opposition to S. 1035, a bill introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that reauthorizes Section 215 without any changes.

Below is the letter in its entirety.

Dear Booksellers:

An amazing thing happened in our deeply divided Congress last week. The House Judiciary Committee approved a bill by a vote of 25–2. It is even more surprising that the bill was the USA FREEDOM Act (H.R. 2048), which contains the most significant changes to the Patriot Act since it was passed in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks.

The American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE) is once again asking booksellers to join librarians, publishers, writers, and several dozen civil liberties, human rights, and electronic freedom groups in urging Congress to restore the protections for civil liberties that were eliminated by the Patriot Act. The most controversial part of the Patriot Act, Section 215, expires on June 1, and this sunset provision provides an important opportunity to argue our case and to urge the passage of the USA FREEDOM Act.

When the Patriot Act became law, booksellers were shocked to learn that Section 215 allows the government to secretly search customer records, including the titles people are buying. Even worse, recipients of Section 215 orders are forbidden to reveal that a search has occurred. At first, it wasn’t even clear that the orders could be challenged.

We feared that the government might use Section 215 to demand that a bookstore turn over all its customer information or produce a list of people who had purchased a particular title. In 2004, the FBI tried to force a library in rural Washington State to identify patrons who had checked out a biography of Osama bin Laden. The library objected and the FBI withdrew the subpoena. But the library might have been forced to comply if the FBI had used a Section 215 order instead of a subpoena.

The FREEDOM Act bans the “bulk collection” of data by requiring the government to provide information identifying a specific person, account, address, or other “specific selection term” (SST) when it applies for authority to search under Section 215. The bill makes clear 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 would make it easier to monitor whether the government is abusing its authority. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which secretly reviews requests for Section 215 orders, would be required to declassify its opinions whenever it can and to publish an unclassified summary when it can’t. A panel of experts would be appointed to help the FISC weigh the privacy implications of its decisions. Private companies would be permitted to release more information about the secret orders they receive from the government.

We wish the FREEDOM Act went further. Under the Patriot Act, the government can demand any record that is “relevant” to a national security investigation. Reformers would like to see that authority narrowed to target the records of people who are suspected terrorists. But Congress is unwilling to go that far in the climate of fear created by ISIS, Al-Shabaab, and terrorists like the two men who staged the recent attack in Garland, Texas.

ABFE has endorsed H.R. 2048, the House version of the FREEDOM Act, and is urging you to support it by calling your representative in the House. We are also hoping you will call your senators to tell them to oppose S. 1035, a bill introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that re-authorizes Section 215 without any changes. (The Senate version of the FREEDOM Act has not been introduced. We will let you know when that happens.)

You may think that making these calls won’t matter much. But our experience is that legislators listen to booksellers. They know that bookstores are influential institutions in their districts. So when you are speaking, be sure to identify yourself as a bookseller.

If you need help contacting your representatives, try Fight215, a website that makes it easy. Co-sponsored by ABFE, Fight215 includes a sample script and a tool that connects you with someone in your representative’s office.

The House is expected to vote on the FREEDOM Act next week. Please call your House member today.

Thank you!

Yours very truly,

Chris Finan
Director, American Booksellers for Free Expression