Rep. Sanders Comments on the Freedom to Read Protection Act of 2003

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On March 6, 2003, Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced the Freedom to Read Protection Act of 2003, federal legislation that would remove a threat to the privacy of bookstore and library records that was created by the USA Patriot Act. At present, the proposed amendment has 26 co-sponsors, including Ron Paul (R-TX) and John Conyers (D-MI), the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.

At a Washington, D.C., press conference, Rep. Sanders explained why he believed the proposed "tri-partisan" legislation would protect the privacy and First Amendment rights of American citizens against unnecessary government intrusion.

Good afternoon, and thank you for joining us here today to announce the introduction of the Freedom to Read Protection Act -- legislation which will protect libraries, bookstores and their patrons from unjustified government surveillance into what books Americans are reading and buying, and what Web sites they may be visiting when using a library computer.

Let me begin by thanking the Members of Congress who have joined me here today. I also want to thank Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundations for Free Expression, and Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association's Washington Office, for joining us. I am also delighted that Trina Magi -- a librarian from the University of Vermont -- and Linda Ramsdell, a bookstore owner from Hardwick, Vermont, who is the President of the New England Booksellers Association, are here with us today.

Let me also congratulate the 62 cities and towns all across this country that have passed resolutions on this issue -- and that number is growing rapidly. That effort is being coordinated by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, which understands that civil liberties and constitutional rights are not only a national issue, but also a local issue. I also want to thank the editorial boards of the many newspapers all over this country who have spoken out on this freedom to read issue -- including the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, the Honolulu Observer, the Providence Journal-Bulletin, the Caledonia Record, and the Valley News.

The tri-partisan legislation we are introducing today -- called the Freedom to Read Protection Act -- would protect the privacy and First Amendment rights of American citizens against unnecessary government intrusion. Specifically, this legislation will exempt libraries and bookstores from Section 215 of the so-called "Patriot Act." The Freedom to Read Protection Act is being introduced by 24 members of Congress including Republican Ron Paul of Texas, and Congressman John Conyers, the Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee. They are both unable to join us today, but I do want to recognize their support and leadership in protecting civil liberties. I am confident that in the days and weeks to come we will add many more cosponsors.

One of the cornerstones of our democracy is the right of Americans to criticize their government, and to read printed materials without fear of government monitoring and intrusion.

Yes, all of us are concerned about terrorism and all of us are determined to do all that we can to protect the American people from another terrorist attack. But, the threat of terrorism must not be used as an excuse by the government to intrude on our basic constitutional rights. We can fight terrorism, but we can do it at the same time as we protect the civil liberties that have made our country great.

Unfortunately, the Patriot Act has changed all that. Section 215 of the Patriot Act greatly expanded the FBI's ability to get records from all businesses, including libraries and booksellers, without meeting the traditional standard needed to get a search warrant in the United States.

This is a very dangerous situation. Today, all the FBI has to claim is that the information they want is somehow relevant to an investigation to protect against international terrorism. This is an extremely low threshold for government intrusion, and average Americans should be extremely concerned.

The reason they should care is that Section 215 does not just apply to terrorists, or even foreigners or agents of foreign powers. Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the person whose records are being searched by the FBI can be anyone. The FBI doesn't even have to say that it believes the person is involved in criminal activity or that the person is connected to a foreign power.

Even more frightening, the FBI can investigate American citizens based in part on an American's exercise of his or her First Amendment rights, such as writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper or reading books the government may not approve of.

And the traditional legal protections, which have been embodied in our Constitution for hundreds of years, no longer apply. The government can gain access to our reading records through the secret FISA court, which was created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978, and which is off limits to the public. There's no way to know how many times the FBI has spied on library or bookseller records or whose records they have reviewed.

In fact, Section 215 prevents librarians and booksellers from telling their customers that their privacy has been violated. Who would have thought that in 21st century America, the government could gain access to library circulation records and bookseller customer records with no evidence that the person whose records they are getting is involved in any wrongdoing, that all of this would be handled through a secret government court, and that the librarians and booksellers would be compelled by the law not to let anyone know that the government had swooped in to get their records?

Now, some may ask how the federal government is using this new power. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are also interested in that question and have pressured the Justice Department to show how they are using these new powers. The information they have received after months of badgering the Department is inadequate. The Justice Department claimed most of the information regarding libraries and bookstores was "confidential," and could not be provided. This past October, several national organizations, including the American Booksellers Association, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get statistical information, such as how many times the government has used its expanded surveillance authority under the Patriot Act. In January, a very limited amount of information was released to these groups, and they are continuing to push for a more complete disclosure.

Importantly, an anonymous survey done by the University of Illinois found that over 175 libraries across the county have been visited by federal authorities since the September 11 attacks. How is the Congress and the public supposed to make sure that these new powers are not being abused when we do not even know how often they are being invoked and the types of institutions that are being investigated?

For many people who cannot afford to buy books or have the Internet at home the library is critical to their ability to access information. Many librarians and booksellers now fear that patrons have begun to self-censor their library use and book purchases due to fears of government surveillance. We need to remove libraries and booksellers from Section 215 so that Americans know their freedom to access information won't be improperly scrutinized by federal agents.

Let us be clear. The FBI would still be able to gain access to library or bookseller records as part of an investigation into illegal activity. All our bill does is restore the traditional protections that Americans expect and deserve. If the FBI has probable cause to believe that information in a library or bookseller's records or computers is connected to an ongoing criminal investigation or terrorism investigation, they can go to court and get a search warrant.

In addition, the bill requires that the Justice Department provide more detailed information about its activities under Section 215 so we can determine how the FBI is using its new powers under Section 215.

Let me conclude by saying that all of us support protecting Americans from terrorism. But we do not win against terrorists by abandoning our most basic civil liberties. We cannot be an example of freedom for the world when our own government is spying of what Americans are reading.