Washington, D.C., September 29, 2004—On behalf of more than 180,000 readers across the country who have signed petitions calling upon Congress to end government surveillance of their reading habits, organizations representing booksellers, librarians, publishers and authors went to Capitol Hill today to seek an amendment to Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act to restore due process and confidentiality to bookstore and library records.

At a press conference this morning in the Capitol, Oren Teicher (COO of the American Booksellers Association standing in at the last minute for ABA President Mitchell Kaplan, whose flight was delayed), Carla Hayden (past President of the American Library Association), former U.S. Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder (President of the Association of American Publishers), and Salman Rushdie (President of PEN American Center) delivered petitions gathered through the jointly sponsored Campaign for Reader Privacy to leaders of congressional efforts to improve the effectiveness and oversight of post-9/11 security legislation. The signatures were gathered in independent bookstores and libraries across the country.

Pointing to statements by Lee Hamilton, Vice Chair of the 9/11 Commission, that there is evidence of “an astounding intrusion into the lives of ordinary Americans that is routine today in Government,” the group also presented a list of questions about the government’s use of Section 215 in bookstores and libraries that it said must be answered.

“I stand here as the representative of more than 500 booksellers around the country who started circulating petitions in February calling on Congress to restore the protections for the privacy of bookstore and library records that were eliminated by the USA PATRIOT Act,” ABA Chief Operating Officer Oren Teicher told the gathering. “With our partners in the Campaign for Reader Privacy, we have collected more than 180,000 signatures, and we are here today to present them to our champion, Congressman Bernie Sanders, and to other Congressional leaders in the fight for reader privacy. We chose this day in particular because it falls during Banned Books Week, the national celebration of the freedom to read.”

“It’s time for the government to stop wasting its time on the supposed security risk presented by regular Americans who are using their public libraries for research, for learning, and for fun,” said Carla Hayden, immediate past president of the American Library Association. Hayden reported that during her tenure she received a phone call from Attorney General John Ashcroft assuring her that the Justice Department had not used PATRIOT Act powers to investigate libraries. Then, months later, “we learned that the Justice Department used its power to snoop on library users just weeks after our conversation.”

Such secrecy has compounded the fears of ordinary Americans that their personal records are now open to the scrutiny of federal investigators—an especially serious matter when the records relate to sensitive First Amendment-protected activities such as the choice of reading material. These fears, the speakers insisted, are real and reasonable. Pointing out that our fear of government snooping is well-founded and citing examples from domestic spying on civil rights and Vietnam war protest groups to the FBI’s notorious Cold War-era “Library Awareness Program,” former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, who heads the Association of American Publishers, asked how long our cherished free marketplace of ideas will survive an atmosphere “where readers are afraid to read and publishers are reluctant to publish controversial books with unpopular views that may bring them under unwanted government scrutiny?”

Noting that “many countries still forbid the reading and mere possession of my books,” author and PEN American Center president Salman Rushdie warned of the costs of these fears. “We at PEN have seen again and again how societies are weakened when the freedom of individuals to seek information and debate ideas has been limited. And we know from our own experiences as writers lucky enough to live in open societies like this one how those freedoms, when protected, fuel creativity and correct or prevent countless governmental mistakes or errors.” Rushdie emphasized that PEN, which has grappled with the impact of terrorism on freedom of expression in many countries, “supports strong, targeted laws to confront this threat. But PEN has also witnessed how, in many countries—including countries struggling with real and imminent terrorist threats—anti-terror laws exceeded their stated purpose and came to be used to consolidate power, cover government misconduct, and stifle dissent.”

“With many provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act scheduled to expire in the coming months, including Section 215, Congress will have the opportunity to review and improve anti-terror legislation so that it more effectively targets terrorist activity and also better safeguards core freedoms,” Rushdie insisted.

In addition to the petitions, the groups also presented a list of 5 “Unanswered Questions About Library and Bookstore Surveillance Under the USA PATRIOT Act”:

Why does the government need the power to search records of people who are not suspected of being terrorists or agents of a foreign government?

Why is it necessary that Section 215 orders be issued by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and not by courts where booksellers and librarians have the ability to challenge overly broad orders?

Why is it necessary to impose a gag order that prevents law-abiding citizens from learning that their records have come under scrutiny?

With the growing use of PATRIOT Act-authorized National Security Letters that allow federal investigators to seek records even without securing FISA-court orders, what guarantees exist that searches receive any independent review?

Why can’t the number of bookstore and library searches be made public?

“The more the American people learn about the impact of the PATRIOT Act and other post 9/11 legislation on their privacy and civil liberties, the more questions we have,” Kaplan concluded. “Congress should be thoroughly investigating the application of current laws before moving forward with bills that only compound these questions. It is the only way we can be sure we do not once again end up with laws that seriously compromise fundamental rights.”

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