Congress Urged to Exempt Bookstore Records From Patriot Act

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On April 7, the American Booksellers Association, American Library Association, Association of American Publishers, and PEN American Center sent a memo urging Congress to exempt bookstores and library records from Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. The appeal is the latest phase in the Campaign for Reader Privacy (CRP), the groups' five-year effort to restore reader privacy safeguards stripped away by the Patriot Act. Although the Patriot Act is set to expire at the end of the year, legislation is under consideration that would extend the law.

Said ABA COO Oren Teicher, "We believe the time has come to reassure Americans that the government is not reading over their shoulder."

In its memo to Congress, CRP said that it supports legislation introduced by Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Jerry Nadler (D-NY) in the previous session of Congress that would restrict the use of Section 215 orders and National Security Letters (NSLs) to searches targeting suspected terrorists or people who are known to them. Nadler reintroduced the National Security Letters Reform Act (H.R. 1800) on March 30, and Feingold is expected to introduce a bill at a later date.

In a press release, CRP explained that, since 2003, the Department of Justice has used its expanded power under the Patriot Act to issue more than 200 secret search orders under Section 215 and more than 190,000 NSLs. At present, the FBI can still search any records it believes are "relevant" to a terrorism investigation, including the records of people who are not suspected of criminal conduct, the groups stressed.

Patriot Act orders bar recipients from revealing the existence of NSLs, therefore it is impossible to know how many have been served on bookstores and libraries. However, in its memo, CRP reported that there have been at least three significant and disturbing attempts to obtain records from libraries since 2003. In 2004, the FBI issued a subpoena to a library in rural Washington State demanding a list of patrons who had checked out a biography of Osama bin Laden. In 2005, an NSL was sent to a Connecticut library consortium in an effort to obtain the Internet records of one of its patrons, and in November 2007, the FBI issued an NSL to Internet Archive, a digital library, seeking the name and address of one of its users as well as all transactional records pertaining to the user. All three of the orders were withdrawn after they were challenged by librarians.

The broad authority granted to the FBI by the Patriot Act, the groups state, represents a serious threat to intellectual freedom. An essential part of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech is the freedom to explore ideas and seek information without fear of government scrutiny. The Patriot Act weakened the confidentiality protections for these records and raised fears that the FBI could circumvent constitutional checks on searches.

This danger has been confirmed by the Inspector General of the Justice Department. In a 2008 report to Congress, the Inspector General said that in one case the FBI had done an end-run around the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court after the court had denied approval for a search that threatened the First Amendment rights of the target. Twice refused a Section 215 order by the court, the FBI used its authority to issue an NSL without court approval for the same information, an action that was criticized by the Inspector General.

Section 215, which has already been extended once, is scheduled to expire at the end of the year. However, Republicans in the House of Representative have introduced legislation extending it and two other Patriot Act provisions for another 10 years. Moreover, FBI Director Robert Mueller recently called on Congress to extend the three expiring provisions.

The Campaign's Congressional memo, "Restoring the Safeguards for Reader Privacy," is available at