I hate to break in on your Washington’s Birthday celebration, especially if you’ve just gotten to the cherry pie part. But among the many problems of squishing the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln into a single nondenominational Presidents Day (with Franklin Pierce and Benjamin Harrison peeking around the edges) is that the middle Monday of February involves no cuisine — and no principles.

Back when we celebrated today as Washington’s Birthday, the watchword was, “I cannot tell a lie.” The closest message from Presidents Day is, “I cannot double-park.”

But this year, there’s an opportunity to mark George’s 272nd — and doesn’t he look good for his age? — with a moment to honor someone who, to pass the time between the Revolution and becoming president, presided over the Constitutional Convention. Last week, the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association and the PEN American Center kicked off the Campaign for Reader Privacy, supporting efforts to amend Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.

The section allows the government to seize — with a search warrant from a secret court, but without probable cause to suspect criminal action — the library and bookstore records of individuals. It also puts the librarians and booksellers under a gag order, preventing them from challenging the order or notifying the people involved.

Declared the three associations supporting the new effort, “Bookstore customers and library patrons must feel free to seek out books on health, religion, politics, the law or any subject they choose, without the feeling that the government is looking over their shoulder.”

Or, as today’s birthday boy once put it, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”

To avoid leaving it to this particular irresponsible action, the groups involved have set up a petition at www.readerprivacy.com, seeking signatures to support the Freedom to Read Protection Act and the Security and Freedom Ensured Act, both introduced last year with bipartisan support. They’re seeking a million signatures by May 4, when librarians will meet with their representatives and senators.

The statement is supported by scores of book-related companies, from Barnes & Noble to Random House to Pocahontas Press, and literary groups from the Association of American Publishers to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to the Pacific Northwest Independent Booksellers Association.

Attached to the petition is a list of more than 270 local jurisdictions that have protested the Patriot Act — including Washington County, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; and of course, Washington, D.C.

The effort was spurred, explained Judith Krug, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, by President Bush’s State of the Union speech last month, when he called for parts of the Patriot Act that will sunset to be made permanent. Krug noted Friday that when an actual criminal act was suspected, law enforcement has always been able to get library records.

“What we’re not going to allow is using library records as fishing records,” she said, “and that’s what the USA Patriot Act is trying to do.”

Last year, Attorney General John Ashcroft, while insisting on the importance of the Section 215 powers, declared that they had never been used, and labeled the protesting librarians as hysterics. Krug went home and started producing buttons reading, “Another Hysterical Librarian for Freedom.”

There are now 10,000 of them in circulation, bearing a loose translation of a phrase Washington would have recognized: “Don’t Tread on Me.”

He might also have recognized the strategy of resistance. As Washington once noted, possibly while sending out for more ice at Valley Forge, “The marvel of all history is the patience with which men and women submit to burdens unnecessarily laid upon them by their governments.”

Of course, sometimes they don’t have the patience, and sometimes they don’t submit.

OK. Back to the cherry pie.

David Sarasohn, associate editor, can be reached at 503-221-8523 or davidsarasohn@news.oregonian.com.

Copyright 2004 The Oregonian. All Rights Reserved.

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