Seattle Times Urges 'Try again, protect libraries, bookstores'

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In this March 14, 2005, editorial, the Seattle Times urges Congress to vote in favor of Congressman Bernie Sanders' Freedom to Read Protection Act to protect the privacy of bookstore and library patrons.

Try again, protect libraries, bookstores

A Vermont congressman's desire to protect the records of library patrons and book buyers is worth another try.

Even though Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act is supposed to sunset in December, Rep. Bernie Sanders is taking nothing for granted. The Bush administration and new Attorney General Alberto Gonzales are pushing for Congress to reauthorize the law. Enacted quickly in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the measure did not get the exhaustive vetting such sweeping changes deserve. The result codified law enforcement's expansive investigative wish list. Some might be worthy changes, but the one affecting libraries and booksellers certainly is not.

This week, Sanders, an independent, reintroduced his bill, which would exempt libraries and booksellers from the Patriot Act. If enacted, the bill would restore the traditional "probable cause" standard when law-enforcement officers seek warrants to examine which books a person checked out or purchased.

The Vermont independent has gathered 108 co-sponsors, including Reps. Jay Inslee, Rick Larsen, and Jim McDermott, all Washington Democrats. Missing from the list, but apparently not for long, is Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, whose ill-advised vote last summer helped defeat a Sanders amendment to do the same thing -- in a 210-210 vote.

Smith, soon after, admitted his error. Friday, his spokesman said Smith would be signing on to Sanders' bill and likely would sign on to another bill, not yet introduced, that would amend the Patriot Act more broadly.

Not only Democrats are on Sanders' side. Also on board are conservatives, such as Idaho Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter, chagrined at government's expanded authority to probe the business of private citizens. It's also a cause of the American Library Association, which has a record dating back decades of protecting the privacy of its patrons.

Neither the Seattle City Library nor the King County Library has been served Patriot Act warrants since the law was passed. But King County Library Director Bill Ptacek notes his library has worked effectively with law enforcement on traditional court orders since it was passed, proving the old standard works just fine.

Sanders' bill has obvious merit. But it also serves as a feisty retort to those who would reauthorize the Patriot Act without thorough scrutiny.

Copyright 2005 Seattle Times Company. Used with permission. The Seattle Times is on the Web at