Free Speech Groups Urge Judge to Overturn Book Ban

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In Las Vegas, several free speech groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada (ACLUN), are asking a federal judge to lift a ban on a book written by an anti-tax activist.

In March, U.S. District Court Judge Lloyd D. George placed a temporary restraining order (TRO) on the sale and distribution of Irwin Schiff's The Federal Mafia: How the Government Illegally Imposes and Unlawfully Collects Income Taxes (self-published by Schiff's company, Freedom Books). The judge's ruling came after the Tax Division of the Justice Department brought suit against Schiff, claiming the book would incite citizens to break the law.

However, free speech groups contend that the book ban violates the First Amendment. "It was because of our opposition to prior restraints that the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression [ABFFE] spoke against efforts to punish the publisher of the book Hit Man [originally published by Paladin Press]," said Chris Finan, president of ABFFE, one of the groups seeking to have the ban lifted. "There are a lot of 'how-to' books that could be banned using the logic of the Las Vegas court. It is important to continue to fight efforts to link reading about crime with people who commit crimes."

In its suit against Schiff, the government argued that theories contained in the book could incite unlawful action because the author outlines ways in which citizens can violate the federal law that requires the payment of income taxes. The government further noted that the book could be banned pursuant to the commercial speech doctrine. The IRS raided the Las Vegas-based Freedom Books in February, as reported by the Associated Press.

On March 19, District Court George issued the TRO preventing Schiff from "advocating the false and frivolous position that paying income taxes is voluntary" through the sale or distribution of his book or through any other books, videotapes, audiotapes, seminars, packages, and consultations espousing similar theories. In early April, the ACLUN filed an amicus brief in support of Schiff's right to sell the book and was later joined by ABFFE, the Association of American Publishers, the Freedom to Read Foundation, and the PEN American Center.

The groups argue that the government has no precedent to ban Schiff's book, and Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for ACLUN, pointed out to that even a case involving a book on how to make a bomb did not result in a ban.

On Monday, May 12, the groups filed a Reply to Plaintiff's Post Hearing Brief, in which the groups reaffirmed their position that the ban on Schiff's book violates the First Amendment.

In the brief, the groups noted that the government, in its post hearing brief of May 2, focused on "analogizing to cases involving commercial speech," thereby abandoning "certain of its previously touted theories for censoring The Federal Mafia…. None of those [commercial speech] cases, however, involved an attempt to totally ban a book…. Moreover, all of these other cases [cited by the government] involve plans or schemes where the material in questions is either promotional material, for, or part of, a paid membership plan involving face to face communication. Such is not the case here…. The Federal Mafia is not dependent on members of some organization for its distribution. It is neither part of a 'scheme' nor marketing for one. It is a book entitled to full First Amendment protection as noncommercial political speech."

The case now awaits the judge's decision to either lift the ban or convert the TRO into a preliminary injunction. --David Grogan