Joyce Meskis and the Fight for First Amendment Rights: A Look Back

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“Free Speech” is a monthly column by Chris Finan, director of the American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE), that shares his personal thoughts and opinions on a broad range of free expression issues; the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the American Booksellers Association. This month, Finan is leaving ABA to become the National Coalition Against Censorship’s new executive director.

Joyce MeskisJoyce Meskis is going to hate this column.

The owner of the Tattered Cover Book Store has always turned aside praise for her strong defense of First Amendment rights.

She is going to hear more of it at her retirement party in Denver on Sunday.

We already know how Joyce will reply because she always says the same thing. “I don’t go seeking trouble — it finds us,” she said again in a recent interview.

But the truth is that Joyce is a fighter.

This was clear long before Tattered Cover became the institution that it is today. The store was only seven years old in 1981, when Joyce became a plaintiff in challenge to a new state law banning the display of books and magazines that are “harmful to minors” because of their sexual content. The law was struck down for violating the First Amendment.

Later, Joyce committed Tattered Cover to a broad defense of free speech in a store statement. “We sincerely believe that censorship in any form, whether by individuals, special interest groups, or by government, is seriously damaging to every citizen in this country,” it reads.

Joyce thinks that booksellers have their own version of the Hippocratic Oath that obligates them “to maintain the health and well-being of the First Amendment.”

“It is our most honorable charge to provide books of all kinds, even those with which we may personally disagree, find distasteful, even abhor,” she explains.

In 1989, when violence erupted around the world in response to the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Tattered Cover joined other Colorado bookstores in publishing a newspaper ad announcing their intention to continue selling the book.

In 1991, Joyce, who was then ABA president, testified before Congress in opposition to the Pornography Victims Compensation Act, which authorized the victim of a sexual assault to sue the producer and distributor of a book, magazine, or other material that “caused” the crime. The bill died.

In 1994, she led Colorado Citizens Against Censorship in opposition to an amendment to the state constitution that would have made it easier to censor material with sexual content. Voters rejected it by a large margin.

Then, in April 2000, Tattered Cover faced its biggest test when police demanded it turn over information about books purchased by a customer who was suspected of manufacturing methamphetamine. Plainclothes officers arrived in Joyce’s office with a search warrant that authorized the immediate seizure of the customer’s records.

Fast talking by Joyce and her attorney, Dan Recht, persuaded the police to withdraw and allow a court to decide whether the search warrant violated the First Amendment. But it was the beginning of a difficult legal battle that would absorb much of Joyce’s time and energy over the next two years.

A moment of truth occurred after a judge ruled that the search warrant was too broad and that the store would only have to turn over a single record. The question became whether the store would comply with the court order or appeal.

Joyce called her advisers together for a meeting. She and her senior staff were connected by conference call to leading First Amendment lawyers. The attorneys were unanimous in believing that the court order was the best that store could hope for and urged her to turn over the information.

But Joyce decided to appeal. She won a complete victory in the Colorado Supreme Court, which not only suppressed the search warrant but declared that, in the future, search warrants can never be used to obtain bookstore records in Colorado.

Throughout her career, Joyce has worried that customers would not understand her free speech advocacy. It isn’t easy to explain why you are opposing legislation that purports to protect minors or assist rape victims.

During the search warrant case, she feared that the store would lose business from people who thought she should be helping the police. But almost nobody complained. Some even stopped her on the street to express their support. After more than 30 years, during which Joyce had repeatedly taken potentially controversial positions, they knew she was defending a principle.

They were grateful because Joyce was fighting for their rights.