Vermont Booksellers and Librarians Seek Support in Opposition to Patriot Act Provisions

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In a letter to Vermont's congressional delegation, Vermont booksellers and librarians contend that the USA Patriot Act contains provisions that "undermine" Americans' constitutionally protected right to read and to access information without government interference. The letter, which is being distributed to Vermont-based bookstore members of the New England Booksellers Association (NEBA) for signature, urges Senators Patrick Leahy and Jim Jeffords and Congressman Bernard Sanders to introduce legislation to eliminate these provisions.

"We have always assured our customers that we would never, even with the threat of a subpoena, turn over customer records," said Linda Ramsdell, owner of Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vermont, and president of NEBA. "[The Patriot Act] threatens our ability to promise [that privacy] to our customers." She explained to BTW that the letter would be sent to Vermont's congressional delegation when she believes there are enough bookseller signatures.

The letter was written by the Vermont Library Association (VLA) during the fall, said Ramsdell, and was then modified slightly for booksellers by NEBA's Board of Directors. "It was VLA's initiative -- the bulk of the work was theirs, and they came to us," she said.

The letter notes that "the [Patriot] Act -- passed with virtually no congressional debate -- gives law enforcement officials broad authority to demand that libraries or booksellers turn over books, records, papers, and documents -- in fact 'any tangible things'…. These provisions of the USA Patriot Act do not protect us from terrorism. Rather, they cast a wide net of suspicion and surveillance over the community of readers, researchers, and information-seekers." (To read the letter in full, click here.)

Chris Morrow, general manager of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, told BTW that he plans on signing the letter. Of major concern to Morrow is Section 215 of the Act, which authorizes the FBI to secretly obtain a court order for bookstore and library records from a special "spy" court created by a 1978 law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Additionally, the FBI may search any records that it believes pertain to a foreign intelligence investigation -- even the customer records of people who are not suspected of any crime. The Patriot Act also forbids a bookseller or librarian from revealing that they have received a court order.

"While some may read it as benign, [it is] beginning to erode our civil liberties," Morrow said. "It's the beginning of what is to come. If there's another terrorist attack, then what is Congress going to pass then? We need to take a stand here to protect our civil liberties."

NEBA's Ramsdell hopes that other regional associations will follow suit with their own letters. "What we want is for everyone, anywhere to use the letter -- and they can change it to suit themselves -- to send to their delegations, or even the White House," she explained. --David Grogan