Washington, DC, August 19, 2002—Groups representing authors, book publishers, and booksellers have criticized the Justice Department for refusing to reveal publicly how many times it has used its power under the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act to force bookstores, libraries and newspapers to reveal confidential records, including the titles of books an individual has purchased or borrowed. The House Judiciary Committee had requested this information in June in an effort to determine how the Justice Department is exercising the greatly expanded investigatory powers it received under the PATRIOT Act. However, in a letter to the Judiciary Committee dated July 26, Assistant Attorney General Daniel J. Bryant said that the number of bookstore and library subpoenas, and much of the other information that the Committee had sought in its effort to exercise oversight of the implementation of the PATRIOT Act, is confidential and will be turned over only to the House Intelligence Committee (which does not have oversight responsibility for the ACT). The contents of the letter were reported by The New York Times on August 15.

PEN American Center, the Association of American Publishers and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression expressed deep concern over the Justice Department’s decision. In a letter sent today to House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner and Rep. John Conyers, the Committee’s Ranking Democrat, the book groups said that Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act could have a chilling effect on the First Amendment and urged the Committee to pursue its efforts to ensure that the Justice Department does not abuse its new power. “The secrecy surrounding the issuance of search warrants pursuant to Section 215 and the lack of any adversarial proceeding… are an open invitation to abuse of governmental power in the absence of proper oversight,” they said.

ABFFE President Chris Finan said he was deeply disturbed by the Justice Department’s refusal. “The PATRIOT Act has a potentially chilling effect on the First Amendment rights of bookstore customers because it gives the FBI the power to investigate what people are reading,” he said. “The refusal of the Justice Department to tell us how many times it has used this power is even more unsettling because it naturally leads to the suspicion that it is using it a lot.”

Larry Siems, director of the Freedom to Write Program at PEN American Center, agreed, calling the refusal to turn over the information “another disturbing episode in an ongoing struggle to retain access to information on administration actions and policies.”

Judith Platt, who directs the Association of American Publishers’ Freedom to Read Program, stressed that “an individual’s right to read without the government looking over his shoulder is the most basic right in a free society. If we allow this freedom to be abridged in the interest of law enforcement, we have a right to demand the most stringent standards of judicial and Congressional oversight.”

Founded in 1990 by the American Booksellers Association, ABFFE is the bookseller’s voice in the fight against censorship.

The Association of American Publishers is the national trade organization of the U.S. book publishing industry. AAP’s more than 300 members include most of the major commercial publishers, along with small and independent publishers and university presses. AAP represents an industry whose very existence depends upon rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

PEN American Center’s mission is to promote literature and protect free expression whenever writers or their work are threatened. Internationally, PEN defends writers from censorship, harassment, and imprisonment, as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the United States, PEN defends the First Amendment and protects free speech through sign-on letter campaigns, direct appeals to policy makers, participation in lawsuits and intervention in legal cases, awards for First Amendment defenders, and public events.

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660, ext. 105, lsiems@pen.org