Washington, D.C., June 16, 2005–In a vote that sends a clear message to the Bush Administration that Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act needs to be amended to protect Americans’ right to privacy, the House yesterday passed Rep. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) Freedom to Read Amendment to the Commerce, Justice, State (CJS) Appropriations Bill by a vote of 238-187. The Sanders amendment cuts Justice Department funds for bookstore and library searches under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. On Tuesday, the Bush Administration had warned that it would veto the House Appropriations Bill if it included any amendments that would weaken the PATRIOT Act, as reported by the Washington Post.

Today’s vote represents a significant victory for Sanders and the many free-speech groups and civil-liberties advocates, including the Campaign for Reader Privacy, who believe that Section 215 is a dangerous erosion of constitutional rights.

“This victory clearly shows that you can fight city hall and win, and demonstrates the enormous power of booksellers to influence public policy,” said American Booksellers Association COO Oren Teicher. “We’d like to congratulate and thank Rep. Sanders, as well as booksellers and all those who participated in the Campaign for Reader Privacy. As was said at ABA’s Celebration of Bookselling 10 days ago, America’s readers have never had a better friend or stronger supporter than we have in Bernie.”

“With this vote, Congress has begun the process of rolling back aspects of post-9/11 legislation that unnecessarily encroach on some of our most basic freedoms,” said Larry Siems, director of the Freedom to Write Program at PEN American Center. “Even before 9/11, federal authorities had the power to search personal records of anyone suspected of involvement in terrorism. This is the first step toward restoring checks that prevent the government from seeing the reading records of everyone else.”

While the victory was significant, Teicher stressed that today’s vote does not mean the fight to amend Section 215 is over. “The battle will continue as Congress looks to reauthorize 215 and the other sunsetting provisions of the PATRIOT Act at the end of this year,” he said. “We need to redouble our efforts, and we urge booksellers to continue to collect signatures on reader privacy petitions and to contact their congressional representatives to ask them to support an amendment to Section 215 to protect readers’ First Amendment rights.”

The debate prior to the vote was an intense one, with those in favor of the amendment emphasizing that civil liberties do not have to be sacrificed for the sake of security and those opposed to the amendment warning that it would give terrorists a safe haven in bookstores and libraries. “This amendment seeks to build a sanctuary for terrorists,” declared Tom Feeney (R-FL), “that’s all it does.”

However, Butch Otter (R-ID) retorted that, like any former prosecutor who worked for the government, “my colleague seems frustrated by the Constitution.”

And Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) cautioned, “It’s time to remember where we come from as a nation…a nation that stands up for civil liberties!”

In conclusion, Sanders stressed that, not only are the American Library Association and American Booksellers Association in favor of amending Section 215, but that “seven states in America have gone on record expressing serious concerns” regarding the provision. Furthermore, he continued, hundreds of thousands of citizens have informed their representatives that they are concerned about Section 215, as well.

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