Meskis Defending Our Freedom

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By Reggie Rivers
Denver Post Columnist

Thursday, December 13, 2001--It would have been far easier for Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover Book Store, to give up the fight. It would have been cheaper and simpler to give the police access to the purchasing records of her customers. Everyone would have understood, and no one would have criticized her for giving the cops confirmation that their suspect did purchase two books on how to run a meth lab.

Instead, Meskis chose the hard road and is fighting for something more valuable than many of us may realize. She's been criticized as an obstacle to law enforcement and a defender of criminals. Some citizens have expressed their anger by vowing to never shop at her bookstore. But I believe we all owe Meskis a debt of gratitude, as a true guardian of the First Amendment.

The freedom each of us has to read books for information, education, entertainment, titillation, adventure, escape, or whatever else we're seeking is only valuable if we feel safe to read those books. You wouldn't hesitate to carry the latest John Grisham book onto an airplane with you, but you might not have the courage to take Dealing With Genital Warts.

There are certain topics you'll pursue only if you believe you'll have a degree of anonymity in making the purchase, privacy in reading the book, and a good place to hide the tome from your family and friends.

Meskis understands how vitally important it is for people to feel free to read the things they wish without fear of the government compiling a list that will come back and embarrass them. If people don't have confidence that their privacy will be protected, they'll be less inclined to exercise their First Amendment freedom to read controversial titles.

In April 2000, the North Metro Task Force conducted a raid on a trailer home where a meth lab was being operated. Inside the home they discovered two books explaining how to run such a lab. An empty mailer from the Tattered Cover bore the suspect's name. The two books fit inside the mailer, so the police went to the Tattered Cover to confirm that the books were indeed delivered inside that package.

Initially, they presented Meskis with an administrative subpoena asking for all of the suspect's purchasing records. Meskis called her attorney, who advised her that such a subpoena was not enforceable and she should not turn over her records until she was presented with an actual subpoena.

Again, it wasn't the owner of the meth lab that Meskis was defending; it was the principle that the police should not have easy access to these private records.

The task force came back with a search warrant asking for all the suspect's records for a one-month period. Still, Meskis refused, saying these records should be a matter of last resort after the police had exhausted all other investigative avenues. At that point, the cops hadn't yet fingerprinted the books or interviewed any witnesses.

The battle has continued for more than 18 months, leading to a Colorado Supreme Court hearing last week.

This type of evidence is different from other items the police may seek. If the cops went to a hardware store to uncover the identity of a man who purchased a knife, they would need only probable cause to make that search.

However, when police try to search or seize materials protected by the First Amendment, they must exhaust other avenues and show a "compelling need" before the information can be revealed.

There must be a greater burden of proof on this type of information. Otherwise, the First Amendment freedom we all enjoy is in jeopardy.

Reprinted with permission of the author.