Chorus of Editorials Chastise Congress for Sanders Amendment Vote

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Rep. Bernie Sanders

The defeat of the Freedom to Read Amendment to the Commerce, Justice, State (CJS) Appropriations Bill, which came about as the result of a tie vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on July 8, has been the subject of a number of recent newspaper editorials that have taken to task those in Congress who voted against it. Papers ranging from Florida's St. Petersburg Times to the Seattle Times questioned why so many in the House voted along party lines when freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment are put at risk by provisions of the USA Patriot Act.

Passage of the Freedom to Read Amendment, which was introduced by Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), would have barred the Justice Department from using any of the money appropriated under the CJS bill to search bookstore and library records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

On July 15, the Seattle Times editorial "Sun Should Set on Part of Patriot Act" called the amendment's defeat "disappointing" and voiced the opinion that the tie vote "shows a substantial skepticism that should inform Congress when the act's Section 215 sunsets at the end of 2005."

Calling the voting "rough-and-tumble," the Times continued, "The most fearsome aspect of Section 215 is its secretiveness" and concluded "judging from last week's vote, there is plenty of concern about a lower standard for permitting federal snooping into the reading habits of citizens."

Noting that it took "some last-minute arm-twisting" by Republican leaders to defeat the amendment, in the July 13 editorial "Changing Their Minds," the St. Petersburg Times criticized the Florida House delegation's vote, which followed party lines.

"Thursday's vote demonstrates the growing consensus on Capitol Hill that too much liberty and privacy was given up under the Patriot Act," wrote the Times. "Next time, lawmakers ... should vote their consciences."

And on July 13, in the editorial "Feeling Safer? Rein in the Patriot Act," New York's Ithaca Journal said, "Fears of an intrusive government that could invade the privacy of Americans are among the issues that compelled this nation's Founding Fathers to pen the Bill of Rights -- and today's debate over the Patriot Act," and warned, "caving in to short-term fears by relinquishing civil rights will eventually destroy the long-term civil liberties that have made the U.S. unique among nations. Terror or no terror, the more power governments have, the more abusive they eventually can become. Portions of the Patriot Act should be repealed or revised so they do not allow governments to invade the privacy of citizens and curtail other basic civil liberties."

The editorial "Patriot Games," in the July 17 edition of the Sacramento Bee said of the July 8 vote, "What's at stake is not the government's ability to track down terrorist suspects, which in several respects the Patriot Act justifiably helps them to do. It's the power to poke secretly into areas of Americans' lives that ought to be none of its business -- specifically, what people read or view or, in many cases, communicate to others."

The Bee noted that the Bush administration allowed Attorney General John Ashcroft to go public with a list of examples of "how the law has helped to save lives and obtain convictions" shortly after the vote on the Sanders Amendment, but the paper concluded "none of his examples made the case for prying into Americans' reading habits, and most had little or no connection to terrorist activities."

Next year, when certain provisions of the Patriot Act expire, the Bee called for Congress to "engage in the detailed debate they bypassed in 2001, when Congress rubber-stamped a sweeping measure, parts of which many Americans now properly see as threatening their constitutional rights."

Pennsylvania's Delaware County Times in "These 'Patriots' Need to Clean Up Their Act," published on July 11, called the defeat of the Freedom to Read Amendment "an ugly death," and noted that with the Patriot Act's "expansion into the world of literature and film, a dangerous precedent has been set.

"Section 215 is a stain upon the U.S. Constitution, trampling on the First Amendment (free speech), Fourth Amendment (search and seizure) and the 14th Amendment (due process).... Curtailing the liberties and freedom of any only diminishes all. For giving up our liberty to preserve our liberty is a losing proposition that would have our Founding Fathers disowning us."

The close vote on the Freedom to Read Amendment foreshadows a major battle in Congress in 2005 over reauthorizing the provisions of the Patriot Act that are due to expire at the end of the year. In addition to H.R. 1157, several bills that amend the Patriot Act will be considered, including the Security and Freedom Ensured Act (S. 1709), which is currently sponsored by 20 senators, including Senator John Kerry (D-MA), the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.

ABA is urging booksellers who have been collecting signatures on petitions calling for Congress to amend Section 215 to continue to do so and is encouraging other booksellers to join the effort. For additional petition pads, or to join the Campaign for Reader Privacy (, booksellers should contact ABA's Information Department at (800) 637-0037, ext. 1292 or 1293, or for a downloadable PDF of the petition, click here.