Sanders Reintroduces Freedom to Read Protection Act

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Rep. Bernie Sanders

On Wednesday, March 9, at a press conference on Capitol Hill, Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) announced the reintroduction in the House of Representatives of the Freedom to Read Protection Act (FTRPA), legislation that would amend Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act to protect the privacy of bookstore and library patrons. Representing independent booksellers at the press conference were Linda Ramsdell of The Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vermont, and ABA COO Oren Teicher.

"We fully intend to push for a vote on this legislation in the Congress, and we expect to win," Sanders said. "We already start from a strong position. Over 200,000 Americans, through the Campaign for Reader Privacy [a nationwide grassroots petition drive to raise awareness about the threat to the privacy posed by the USA Patriot Act], have written their Representative in Congress to express opposition to the Patriot Act and Section 215, and encouraged them to cosponsor the Freedom to Read Protection Act....

"So, today, we take the first step toward securing American's Constitutional right to read without Big Brother looking over our collective shoulder by reintroducing the Freedom to Read Protection Act."

Also joining Sanders at the press conference were Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Tom Udall (D-NM); Francine Prose, author and vice president of the PEN American Center; Pat Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers; and Lynne Bradley of the American Library Association.

FTRPA would restore the requirement that federal law enforcement agencies demonstrate that there is probable cause to believe the individual whose records are being sought is involved in espionage or terrorism-related activities. Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act significantly expanded the government's power to seize business records, even the records of individuals not suspected of terrorism or any other crime, by using orders from a secret foreign intelligence court; a bookstore or library receiving such an order has no legal avenue to challenge the seizures and is barred by a gag order from informing anyone that the records have been searched.

"The Patriot Act is a very controversial law," Sanders said. "Librarians, booksellers, and publishers are deeply concerned, as are civil liberties organizations. And let me be very clear that opposition to the Patriot Act comes not just from progressives ... but also from leading conservatives." Upon its reintroduction into the House, Sander's bill had 108 co-sponsors.

Amend Section 215 of the Patriot Act

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Said Ramsdell, "All across America, booksellers, librarians, our customers, and patrons have pledged their support. In all 50 states, in hundreds of libraries and bookstores, readers have signed petitions urging their representatives in Congress to support legislation that amends Section 215.... The Campaign for Reader Privacy, launched by the American Library Association, PEN American Center, the Association of American Publishers, and ABA continues, and we expect to add greatly to our numbers in the coming weeks and months.

"We will protect our customers' freedom to read. Democracy thrives where ideas thrive. In bookstores across America, democracy is flourishing.... As booksellers, we believe it is our right to sell any book to our customers who have the right to purchase and read any book, and we will zealously guard the privacy of this transaction."

FTRPA was first introduced in 2003 and was co-sponsored by more than 150 members of Congress, including both Democrats and Republicans. Although the bill has not come up for a vote, last year Representative Sanders introduced an amendment that would have denied Justice Department funds to carry out Section 215 searches of libraries and bookstores. While the amendment went down to the narrowest defeat in July, the fight on the House floor reflected what one newspaper termed "the growing consensus on Capitol Hill that too much liberty and privacy was given up under the Patriot Act."

In advance of the reintroduction of Sanders' legislation, last week, ABA e-mailed a letter to independent booksellers who have participated in the Campaign for Reader Privacy that called on them to urge their members of Congress to support Sanders' legislation and to become a co-sponsor of his bill. Attached with the e-mail was a template letter that booksellers can send to their members of Congress.

"Last year, booksellers, librarians, publishers, and writers launched the Campaign for Reader Privacy to restore safeguards for the privacy of bookstore and library records," noted ABA's Teicher. "We collected nearly 200,000 signatures on petitions in bookstores and libraries, and on our website,, and we are going back to the grassroots this year to collect even more."

The Freedom to Read Protection Act and Sen. Russell Feingold's Library, Bookseller, and Personal Records Privacy Act (S. 317), which was reintroduced in the Senate on February 8, are among a number of bills that would strengthen civil liberties protections that were weakened by the Patriot Act. In addition, it is expected that the Security and Freedom Ensured (SAFE) Act, which also restores reader privacy, will be reintroduced this year. Its authors are Senators Larry Craig (R-ID) and Richard Durbin (D-IL). --David Grogan