Coliseum Books Hosts Crowd for Free Speech Event

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(l. to r.) Georgetown University Law Professor and author David Cole, columnist and poet
Katha Pollitt, and author Nan Levinson.

On Tuesday, January 20, the evening when President George W. Bush delivered his State of the Union Address and called for renewal of provisions of the USA Patriot Act set to expire next year, approximately 85 people braved frigid temperatures to gather at New York City's Coliseum Books for a panel discussion, "Free Speech in the Age of Ashcroft," led by Katha Pollitt, a columnist at The Nation and an award-winning poet. Pollitt talked to Nan Levinson, author of Outspoken: Free Speech Stories (University of California Press) and Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole, author of Enemy Aliens and Terrorism and the Constitution (both from The New Press).

Nancy Maron, director of events at Coliseum Books, said she "was thrilled at the turnout" for the event, which was co-sponsored by the National Coalition Against Censorship and the University of California Press.

The hour-and-a-half discussion touched on various forms of censorship, from that of reading materials, to censorship in the workplace, to the United States' treatment of foreign nationals.

Cole, whose books examine the breakdown in First Amendment protections in the name of national security, stressed the effects on foreign nationals and others who are vulnerable, but warned that history has shown that "it is a precursor of what they will do to us…. In our own self-interest, we need to be concerned."

The U.S. government "adopted measures that are extremely overbroad," Cole said, because they were so unprepared for the events of 9/11. The result has been that 5,000 people have been locked up in the name of national security without due process, and only one person has been convicted, and that was under a cloud, because the main witness lied, Cole explained.

While the movement opposing the Patriot Act has gained momentum, Cole warned, "There is no question the pendulum will swing the other way, with another attack [in the U.S.] The question is how much."

To ensure that our civil liberties are not eroded further, and to continue the movement to amend the Patriot Act, Cole said, "it is incredibly important that we educate and organize. Grassroots initiatives are critical."

As part of its grassroots efforts, Coliseum Books is participating in an initiative organized by ABA to collect one million customer signatures on a petition calling for Congressional support of legislation amending Section 215 of the Patriot Act, to restore the privacy of bookstore and library records. At the event, the store had set up a table with the petition near the front cashwrap. (For more on the petition drive, and for a downloadable PDF of the petition itself, click here.) --Rosemary Hawkins