Op-Ed Piece on Patriot Act Spurs Deluge of Customer Interest

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After Betsy Burton of the Kings English in Salt Lake City wrote the following opinion piece, which appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune, the store was swamped with customers who wanted to sign the Campaign for Reader Privacy petition calling for an amendment of Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The Campaign for Reader Privacy (www.readerprivacy.com/) continues through the weekend of May 15. ABA is asking booksellers to send in signed petitions whenever they have collected a few hundred signatures, and then on May 17 to mail in all remaining petitions. There is still time to join this critical petition drive. Petition pads can be ordered by calling ABA's Information Department at (800) 637-0037, ext. 1292 or 1293, or for a downloadable PDF of the petition, click here.

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

Patriot Act-Approved Snooping on Bookstore, Library Readers Must Stop

By Betsy Burton

The hottest item in our bookstore in Salt Lake City is not Margaret Atwood's newest novel in paper, Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies, or even The Da Vinci Code. It is a petition that calls on Congress to restore the safeguards for the privacy of bookstore and library records that were eliminated by the Patriot Act.

Perhaps a thousand of my customers have signed the petition since the Campaign for Reader Privacy launched a nationwide drive on Feb. 17, and many have thanked us for having it on the front counter. Tens of thousands have signed in bookstores and libraries across the country as well as on a new Web site, http://www.readerprivacy.org.

Concern about the loss of bookstore and library privacy is one reason that four states and 276 cities and counties, including Castle Valley, Utah, have passed resolutions critical of the Patriot Act.

As a Salt Lake bookseller for 26 years, I am grateful to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, for holding a hearing today to explore criticisms of the Patriot Act. I am particularly anxious for him to understand why booksellers, librarians, and our customers fear that the FBI may be using its vastly expanded surveillance powers to obtain records of what people are reading.

Law enforcement officials increasingly see the titles of the books purchased by our customers as a useful source of information for their investigations. Kenneth Starr seems to have given others the idea in 1998 when he subpoenaed Monica Lewinsky's book-purchase records from two Washington, D.C., bookstores. Denver police served a search warrant on the Tattered Cover Book Store for the titles of books purchased by a drug suspect. Cleveland authorities demanded that Amazon.com turn over a list of everyone in northeastern Ohio who had purchased two audio CDs.

Booksellers fought these subpoenas and search warrants because we do not want to violate our customers' privacy. This is more than a customer service issue. If our customers lose faith in our promise to protect the confidentiality of their records, they will avoid purchasing many controversial or sensitive titles out of a fear that the titles may one day end up in the hands of the police or even be made public. So far, all the courts we have appealed to agree that the right to purchase books anonymously is a key element of First Amendment freedom.

It is because of our concern for customer privacy that we were worried when we discovered that the Patriot Act contained Section 215, a provision that gives the FBI virtually unlimited power to search bookstore and library records. In a foreign intelligence investigation, the FBI can go to a judge in a secret court and request an order for the records of almost anyone. Agents do not have to show that there is probable cause to believe that the person is engaged in criminal activity. They can even get a list of people who bought a particular title.

Secrecy eliminates the safeguards against a possible abuse of this power. Booksellers and librarians cannot object to the search orders before they are issued, and the orders contain a gag provision that prevents us from revealing that our records have been searched.

As a result, there is no way of knowing if the FBI is abusing its power. Until last fall, the Justice Department refused to reveal the number of times it had used Section 215. Then, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that it hadn't used it at all. We didn't find this reassuring. Such a broad power is an invitation to future abuse. The Justice Department has resumed its silence on whether it is using Section 215.

Frankly, that frightens me.

Section 215 is set to expire in 2005. But President Bush wants Congress to reauthorize it and a number of other provisions of the Patriot Act that are scheduled to lapse.

Millions of Americans believe that doing so will undermine the civil liberties that make the United States the country that we love.