Washington, DC, March 9, 2005Organizations representing booksellers, librarians, publishers and writers gathered on Capitol Hill today to cheer the reintroduction of the Freedom to Read Protection Act, promising to mobilize readers and book lovers all over the country to press for the restoration by the end of 2005 of privacy safeguards stripped by the USA PATRIOT Act.

Representative Bernie Sanders (I-VT) announced the reintroduction of the Freedom to Read Protection Act at a press conference this morning.  He was joined by Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Tom Udall (D-NM), and representatives of the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, the American Library Association, and PEN American Center.

The Freedom to Read Protection Act restores the requirement that federal law enforcement agencies demonstrate that there is probable cause to believe the individual whose records are being sought is involved in espionage or terrorism-related activities.  Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act significantly expanded the government’s power to seize business records, even the records of individuals not suspected of terrorism or any other crime, by using orders from a secret foreign intelligence court; a bookstore or library receiving such an order has no legal avenue to challenge the seizures and is barred by a gag order from informing anyone that the records have been searched.

“Last year, booksellers, librarians, publishers and writers launched the Campaign for Reader Privacy to restore safeguards for the privacy of bookstore and library records,” Oren Teicher, chief operating officers of the American Booksellers Association, said.  “We collected nearly 200,000 signatures on petitions in bookstores and libraries, and on our Web site, www.readerprivacy.org, and we are going back to the grassroots this year to collect even more.”

ALA Washington Office Executive Director Emily Sheketoff added, “the freedom to read what we choose without the government looking over our shoulder is perhaps the most basic of all the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. In seeking to curb the overly broad provisions of Section 215, we are not trying to thwart government efforts to investigate terrorists.  However, we do not believe that the government needs unsupervised, secret powers to learn what ordinary Americans are reading.”

Former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, president and chief executive officer of the Association of American Publishers, said: “Americans understand the need for accurate intelligence and heightened security to prevent acts of terror.  But unless we protect ourselves without sacrificing our freedom, any “security” we achieve is meaningless.  This year, with Section 215 due to expire, gives us a golden opportunity and every person in this country who values the right to read freely needs to demand that Congress restore the safeguards on our privacy and our freedom to read.” 

Francine Prose, acclaimed novelist and vice president of PEN American Center, emphasized that writers, like all Americans, support strong, targeted laws to confront terrorism and prevent terrorist attacks. But PEN, an international human rights and free expression organization, has documented how, in many countries struggling with real terrorist threats, anti-terror laws exceed their stated purpose. “We have seen time and again how weakening legal protections for individuals may create shortcuts for law enforcement, but that shortcuts inevitably lead to errors and abuses,” Prose said.

“The Justice Department has yet to explain to Congress or the American people why the FBI needs the power to review the records of what you and I are reading,” Prose added. “The government already had the power to review the records of anyone suspected of being a terrorist or a spy, and the one example it has cited for why it needs the powers, the case of an alleged supporter of al-Qaeda who used New York Public Library computers, is one where we believe the power it possessed before 9/11 would have allowed it to get the information it needed.”

The Freedom to Read Protection was first introduced in 2003 and was co-sponsored by more than 150 members of Congress, including both Democrats and Republicans. Although the bill did not come up for a vote, Representative Sanders introduced an amendment that would have denied Justice Department funds to carry out Section 215 searches of libraries and bookstores.  While the amendment went down to the narrowest defeat last July, the fight on the House floor reflected what one newspaper termed “the growing consensus on Capitol Hill that too much liberty and privacy was given up under the Patriot Act.”

The reintroduced Freedom to Read Protection Act and Sen. Russell Feingold’s  Library, Bookseller and Personal Records Privacy Act  (S. 317) are among a number of bills that would strengthen civil liberties protections that were weakened by the USA PATRIOT Act and other post 9/11 antiterrorism legislation.  It is expected that the Security and Freedom Ensured (SAFE) Act, which also restores reader privacy, will be reintroduced this year.  Its authors are Senators Larry Craig (R-ID) and Richard Durbin (D-IL).

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