Reader Privacy Advocates Urge Calls to Congress

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With debate picking up in Washington over reauthorization of sections of the USA Patriot Act that are set to expire on February 28, the Campaign for Reader Privacy is urging supporters to ask their members of Congress to support the restoration of safeguards for reader privacy eliminated by passage of the act in 2001.

The Patriot Act authorizes the FBI to obtain secret orders to search any business or organization, including bookstores and libraries, whenever it is seeking records that are “relevant” to a national security investigation, including the records of people who are not suspected of criminal conduct. The Campaign for Reader Privacy, which represents librarians, booksellers, authors, and publishers, is urging Congress to limit Patriot Act searches of bookstores and libraries to the records of “agents of a foreign power,” including suspected terrorists, and people who are known to them.

The Campaign has endorsed S. 193, which was reintroduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) last week. The Leahy bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2009, when Congress last considered reauthorization, but it never came up for a vote by the full Senate.  S.193 would provide important safeguards for library records; however, it would not provide additional protection for bookstore records.

Barbara Jones, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, has called on Congress to protect the privacy of reader records in bookstores as well as libraries. “We appreciate the heightened protection afforded library records for those Americans who borrow books. The next logical step would be to safeguard the First Amendment rights of Americans who purchase books in a bookstore. In both instances, reader privacy must be maintained,” she said.

The Campaign for Reader Privacy urges its supporters to contact their representatives in the House and the Senate. In the Senate, they should urge amendments to S. 193 to provide equal protection for library and bookstore records. In the House (where the only bill introduced so far calls for a one-year extension of the Patriot Act without any changes), they should demand substantive reform that will protect reader privacy.

When contacting their representatives, the Campaign said, reader privacy advocates can strengthen their arguments by citing a recent letter from Attorney General Eric Holder. On December 9, in response to Leahy’s request, Holder promised to implement many of the reforms that were contained in Leahy’s 2009 reauthorization bill, including the provision strengthening reader privacy. Holder said the added protections would apply to both libraries and bookstores. “Taken together, I believe these measures will advance the goals of … enhancing the privacy and civil liberties our citizens enjoy without compromising our ability to keep our nation safe and secure,” Holder wrote.

The Campaign suggested that supporters of reader privacy should tell their representatives that they can vote for these changes knowing that the Attorney General of the United States has said that they do not threaten national security and actually enhance privacy and civil liberties.

The Campaign for Reader Privacy was organized in 2004 by the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, and PEN American Center.