Customers Eager to Lend a Hand to Reader Privacy Campaign

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The Campaign for Reader Privacy (, a nationwide grassroots effort to restore safeguards for the privacy of bookstore and library records eliminated by Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, officially launched this week, but many independent booksellers have been collecting customer signatures on petitions calling for an amendment of Section 215 since early January. And those who spoke to BTW reported that customers do not need to be prompted to lend a hand, literally, to the cause.

"We have gone through so many pages [on the petition pads] that we need to order more petition pads. We go through one or two pages a day," reported Linda Leehman, staff manager at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont. [Booksellers who need additional petition pads should call ABA's Information Department at (800) 637-0037, ext. 1292 or 1293, or, to download a reproducible petition form, click here.]

The goal of the Campaign for Reader Privacy (CRP) -- which is sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, and PEN American Center -- 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 Ninth Street Books, Jack Buckley pasted a petition on the front door of his bookstore in downtown Wilmington, Delaware, with a sign reading "Come In & Sign." The result, he noted, has been nothing short of phenomenal. "A great response; a wonderful response," he said. "It's not just our customers walking in and signing…. People are just walking in [from the street] and signing."

Along with the sign on the front door, there is also a petition taped to the front counter. "We keep [the actual] petitions behind the counter," he explained. "We hand it to them if they're interested in signing it."

Buckley said Ninth Street Books has been active in the movement to amend Section 215 "right from the get-go." He noted that, about a year and a half ago, he met with Rep. Michael Castle (R-DE) to discuss his concerns over the Patriot Act and has "been as active as we can be," he said. "In this city we passed a resolution denouncing the Patriot Act."

At Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, Colorado, Matt Miller said that they've collected approximately 2,700 customer signatures thus far. "We have the petition at both stores, right at the cash registers," he said. "Generally speaking, [customers] are aware of [the Patriot Act]. People are signing and saying, 'Yeah, Bush is going too far.'"

Bear Pond's Leehman noted that most customers just sign the petition, which is kept on the front counter. "They don't need an explanation," she said. "They're glad [the petition's] there and thank us for doing it. It was our pleasure to do it."

Each bookseller who spoke to BTW stressed the importance of protecting their customers' privacy, and how Section 215 makes it impossible for them to guarantee that protection. For its part, Bear Pond simply purged its customer database and stopped collecting customer data. Now the store only tracks limited transaction data for members of their Reader's Club -- all because of Section 215, which would make Bear Pond "powerless to protect our customers," Leehman said.

She noted that, understandably, other bookstores might not be so willing to sacrifice their customer list because it is crucial to their marketing efforts. Bear Pond felt it could do so only because "we've been in our community for 30 years and never relied on [our customer list] too heavily," she explained.

Ninth Street's Buckley said he doesn't know if Section 215 has been used, but "that's part of the problem -- everything is secret. And your right to litigation is thrown out."

Tattered Cover's Miller summed up: "We really believe in reader privacy and the potential for [the Patriot Act] is too intrusive. We feel it's important to amend this portion of Patriot Act, and our customers seem to agree."

To find answers to frequently asked questions about the bookstore drive to collect customer signatures, click here.

ABA is asking booksellers participating in the petition drive to periodically mail their signed petitions to ABA, Restore Reader Privacy, Attn.: Oren Teicher, 828 South Broadway, Tarrytown, NY 10591, rather than wait until the end of the campaign. --David Grogan