Justice Department Reaffirms Protections for Reader Privacy

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The Campaign for Reader Privacy (CRP) announced on November 2 that the Department of Justice has reaffirmed protections for the privacy of bookstore and library records that may be targeted under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act.

CRP’s members — the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, and PEN America — had asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch to reaffirm the policy adopted by her predecessor, Eric Holder. In an August 31 letter to CRP, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart J. Evans promised the department will continue to follow the policy adopted in 2010 that prevents searches of the records of bookstore customers and library patrons who are not suspected of terrorism.

Following passage of the PATRIOT Act in 2001, the book community expressed alarm over the fact that Section 215 gives the government the power to search all records that are “relevant” to a terrorism investigation. Since almost any record can be considered “relevant,” there was concern that Section 215 would have a chilling effect on readers who might not feel free to read what they want if they believe the government is looking over their shoulder.

The Campaign for Reader Privacy, which was organized in 2004, has supported a number of legislative initiatives, including a bill introduced in 2009 by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Under the PATRIOT Act, the government applies to a secret court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), to obtain a Section 215 order. The Leahy bill would have required that in searching library records the government provide the FISC with a statement of facts showing that the search related to a person suspected of planning or participating in terrorist acts or someone in contact with such an individual.

Though Leahy’s bill was not enacted, Attorney General Holder wrote to assure the senator that the Justice Department would voluntarily provide a statement of “specific and articulable” facts to show that the target of a bookstore or library search was a suspected terrorist or someone in contact with the suspect. Holder also promised the department would notify Congress if it became necessary to change its policy.

In its August letter to CRP members, the Justice Department confirmed both the current policy and the promise to notify Congress of any change.