Vermont Congressman Will Seek to Eliminate Parts of USA Patriot Act

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When the new congressional session opens, Vermont Congressman Bernard Sanders will be working to introduce legislation to eliminate provisions of the USA Patriot Act that threaten librarian and bookstore patrons' constitutionally guaranteed right to read and to access information without government intrusion or monitoring.

Sanders announced his plans at a December 20 press conference at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, Vermont. He was joined by Linda Ramsdell, owner of the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vermont, and president of the New England Booksellers Association (NEBA); Karen Lane, president of the Vermont Library Association (VLA); and Trina Magi, past VLA president, and Library Assistant Professor at the University of Vermont's Bailey/Howe Library.

Sanders' statement came in response to a letter from members of VLA -- sent to the congressman in November -- and to a similar letter from Vermont booksellers (working with the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression), which Ramsdell presented to Sanders at the press conference.

Both letters note that Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which gives law enforcement officials broad authority to demand that libraries or booksellers turn over books, records, papers, and documents, ultimately casts a wide net of suspicion and surveillance over the community of readers, researchers, and information seekers. Moreover, they argue, these provisions do nothing to protect the American people from terrorism. (To read the letter in full, click here.)

Sanders agreed, and, while stressing the importance to protect Americans from terrorism, he said, "[T]hat does not mean that we have to give the federal government the right to monitor what Americans are reading at their local library or what books they are buying at their local bookstore. What makes this situation all the more distressing is that the Justice Department refuses to divulge how they are using the new powers given to them under the so-called USA Patriot Act."

Sanders said that he would do everything in his power to ensure that Congress passes legislation to "protect Americans' constitutional rights to read books without fear that someone is violating their right to privacy."

In her statement, VLA president Karen Lane said, "We have begun to fear that we could be punished for adhering to the code of ethics governing our profession," namely, a library user's right to privacy.

Added VLA past president, Trina Magi, "If you have to worry about what your reading list might look like to an FBI agent, you might decide to censor yourself and not read what you really want to. And the moment you have to think about those kinds of decisions, then you are no longer truly free."

Galaxy Bookshop's Ramsdell emphasized that the bookstore is a cornerstone of ideas and information. "Democracy thrives where ideas thrive," she said. "We consider it our job to provide any customer with any book he or she wants to purchase…. [I]t is also our job to guard the privacy of our customers, and booksellers have indeed gone to court and prevailed in the face of subpoenas and search warrants. We believe it is our right to sell any book to our customers who have the right to read any book, and we will continue to zealously guard the privacy of this transaction." --David Grogan