New York, Feb. 17, 2004—Groups representing booksellers, librarians, and writers today launched a nationwide effort to obtain one million signatures in support of legislation to amend Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. The groups hope to persuade Congress to restore safeguards for the privacy of bookstore and library records that were eliminated by the Act.
The Campaign for Reader Privacy— sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association and PEN American Center—will gather signatures in bookstores, libraries and on a new Web site, www.readerprivacy.org. Over the last year, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents have joined to sponsor a number of bills to amend Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, including the Freedom to Read Protection Act (H.R. 1157) and the Security and Freedom Ensured (SAFE) Act, S. 1709.
"Booksellers are deeply concerned about the chilling effect of Section 215 and President Bush's stated intent to seek blanket reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act," said ABA Chief Operating Officer Oren Teicher.
Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to give the FBI vastly expanded authority to search business records, including the records of bookstores and libraries: the FBI may request the records secretly; it is not required to prove that there is "probable cause" to believe the person whose records are being sought has committed a crime; and the bookseller or librarian who receives an order is prohibited from revealing it to anyone except those whose help is needed to produce the records.
"This isn't about stripping law enforcement of the power to investigate terrorism. It's about restoring confidence that our reading choices aren't being monitored by the government," said Larry Siems, director of PEN's Freedom to Write Program.
The Bush Administration opposes changes in Section 215. Attorney General John Ashcroft has characterized concern over the privacy of bookstore and library records as "hysteria." In his State of the Union message on January 20, President George Bush called on Congress to reauthorize the provisions of the PATRIOT Act that are due to expire at the end of next year, including Section 215. More than 253 anti–PATRIOT Act resolutions have been passed nationwide in states, counties, cities and small towns—including New York City, Kansas City, Mo., and Valencia County, N.M.—in just the last two weeks.
"Our concerns about privacy are far from hysterical. The federal government has attempted to monitor library records before and it seems inevitable that they will use Section 215 to try again," said Judith F. Krug, director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom.
To demonstrate the unity of the book and library community, the groups also released a statement of support for proposed legislation that amends Section 215. The statement is signed by 40 organizations representing virtually every bookstore, library and writer in the country as well as 81 individual companies, including Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Borders Group, Inc., Ingram Book Group, Random House, Simon & Schuster and Holtzbrinck Publishers.