Is Someone Reading Over Your Shoulder?
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STATEMENT OF REP. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT) AT 3/9 PRESS CONFERENCE

Good morning. I'd like to thank you all for coming this morning as we announce the reintroduction of the Freedom to Read Protection Act, which would amend Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Joining me today are Representative Barbara Lee of California; Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas; Jerrold Nadler of New York; and Tom Udall of New Mexico. We will also hear from Pat Schroeder, a former Member of Congress and President of the American Association of Publishers; Francine Prose, author and Vice President of the PEN American Center; Lynne Bradley from the American Library Association; and Linda Ramsdell of the Galaxy Bookstore in Hardwick, Vermont.

The legislation we are introducing, with 108 cosponsors, would amend Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and restore protections to Americans' reading records at libraries and bookstores. As you know, the USA PATRIOT was hastily passed in the weeks after the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001. The PATRIOT Act expanded the power of government agents in a number of areas, removing critical constitutional protections that Americans enjoyed. In the case of Section 215, federal agents were empowered to get orders from a secret court that would allow them to view, among other things, the reading records of Americans in both libraries and bookstores. Because these orders are granted by a secret court, the person whose records are sought does not even get an opportunity to oppose the order. In most cases, the person whose records are acquired by the government will never know it because the law itself makes it a criminal offense for the librarian or bookseller who is served with order to tell anyone about it.

Section 215 and the USA PATRIOT Act have to be seen in the context of a creeping erosion of our rights that little by little, bit by bit, is making us a less free nation—a nation where Big Brother is exercising more and more power over the average person.

In America today, we have the most secretive administration in American history. In America today, we have well-known reporters who are threatened with jail for refusing to give up their sources. In America today, we have award-winning films, like Saving Private Ryan, kept off from 55 ABC affiliates because they feared government sanction; where PBS withdrew national distribution of a cartoon dealing with maple syrup because the farm couple involved was gay. And there are members of Congress now who want to extend their indecency laws to cable TV and satellite radio. In America today, we have an Attorney General who issued policy positions justifying torture of prisoners in Guantánamo and Iraq. In America today, we spirit away prisoners to former dictatorships for the purpose of torturing them during interrogation.

Giving any administration the powers granted under the PATRIOT Act is a dangerous thing to liberty of the American people. But this administration in particular has produced a record that shows it cannot be trusted. Whether it is secretly paying journalists and commentators to propagandize in favor of administration positions, misleading the American people about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or forcing administration officials to hide the true cost of the administration's so-called "Medicare" prescription drug program; the Bush Administration has repeatedly demonstrated its contempt for the basic tenets of honesty and transparency in government that people in a free society expect and deserve.

The PATRIOT Act is a very controversial law. Librarians, booksellers, and publishers are deeply concerned, as are civil liberties organizations like the ACLU. And it has been criticized by many leading conservatives, like Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform, by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, by the Rutherford Institute, by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, by former House member Bob Barr, by David Keene, chair of the American Conservative Union, and by Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, to name a few.

In the face of the growing drumbeat calling for reform of the Section 215 and other sections of the PATRIOT, the Administration has had to defend its unpopular position.

Let me just go over a couple of the tired arguments that the proponents of Section 215 use in an attempt to justify giving the government access to American's reading records. The first thing they say is that these powers are needed to give them access to valuable information. But what they do not say is that they could always get library records if they had probable cause to believe that the information being sought was connected to a crime. The last time I looked, terrorism was indeed a crime. What they really object to is that these other methods for getting library and bookstore records—namely, search warrants and grand jury subpoenas—both come with significant protections of the constitutional rights of innocent Americans. In the case of a search warrant, the government has to demonstrate probable cause to a federal judge. In the case of a grand jury subpoena, the recipient can go before a federal judge and contest it. Section 215 offers neither of these protections.

With a Section 215 order, the law only requires that the government allege that the information sought is in connection with an investigation concerning international terrorism. If that allegation is made, the judge in the secret court has no discretion to deny the order. There is no requirement of a showing of probable cause of criminal wrongdoing and the request can even be based in part on the exercise of a person's First Amendment rights.

The other defense the Bush Administration raises is that it will only go after the "bad guys" with these new powers so no innocent American should be alarmed. Let us not forget that Martin Luther King, Jr., one of our greatest citizens and a true champion of equal rights for people of all races, was once considered a "bad guy" by some in the government. Let us not forget that McCarthyism in the 1950s destroyed the lives of many innocent people. We will not be dissuaded from protecting Americans' constitutional rights by the administration's plea to just "trust us and everything will be all right."

We fully intend to push for a vote on this legislation in the Congress and we expect to win. As you may remember, an amendment I offered to the last year's Justice Department spending bill would have protected American's reading records from the reach of Section 215. That amendment won with 219 members of the House in support until the Republican leadership kept the vote open for an additional 20 minutes so they could force enough of their members to change their vote so we lost on a 210-210 tie. We intend to redouble our efforts at the grassroots level to make sure that the White House and the Republican leadership cannot force members to flip-flop on their support for reader privacy.

In that regard, we already start from a strong position. Over 200,000 Americans, through the Campaign for Reader Privacy, have written their representatives in Congress to express opposition to the PATRIOT Act and Section 215, and encouraged them to cosponsor the Freedom to Read Protection Act. Four state legislatures, including my own state of Vermont, and 368 municipalities across the country, conservative and progressive, have gone on record by passing resolutions expressing their concerns regarding the PATRIOT Act.

So, today, we take the first step toward securing Americans' constitutional right to read without Big Brother looking over our collective shoulder by reintroducing the Freedom to Read Protection Act. At the end of this year, Section 215 and certain other sections of the Patriot Act are set to expire. President Bush and Attorney General Gonzales have already stated their desire to make Section 215 permanent. That sets us up for a showdown over this critically important issue that goes to the heart of who we are as a people and a nation.

Let us be very clear. Terrorism is a serious threat and the United States government should do all that it can to protect our citizens from another terrorist attack. However, we do not have to sacrifice our basic civil liberties and constitutional rights to do that. We can protect the American people from terrorism while, at the same time, we uphold the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights—that extraordinary document that has made us a free nation and the envy of the world.

Thank you.

Representative Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
Washington, D.C.
March 9, 2005