New York, NY, July 8, 2004—PEN American Center vowed to continue the drive to restore reader privacy protections stripped in post-9/11 antiterrorism legislation after an effort to halt the funding that allows the government to conduct searches of bookstore and library records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act fell just one vote short of passing in the House of Representatives today.

The vote reflected growing support in Congress for a reconsideration of elements of the USA PATRIOT Act that have raised civil liberties concerns. For a time it even looked as if the Freedom to Read Amendment would carry, and the tally stood at 219-201 in favor at the end of the schedule voting time. But before the vote, the White House announced that President George W. Bush would veto the Commerce, Justice, State (CJS) Appropriations Bill if the Freedom to Read Amendment was attached to it, and the House Republican leadership held the vote open beyond the normal 15-minute procedural limit in order to persuade Republicans to change their votes. The vote was held open for an additional 23 minutes as House Majority Leader Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX) lobbied GOP members to switch their votes. Outraged supporters of the Amendment, some chanting “Shame, shame, shame,” demanded that the vote be closed. The vote ended with a 210-210 deadlock, which defeated the measure under House rules.

After the vote, Representative Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who introduced the Amendment, said, “I believe that Congress should do all that it can to protect the American people from another terrorist attack, but we must do that without undermining basic constitutional rights. I find it ironic that, on an amendment designed to protect American democracy and our constitutional rights, the Republican leadership in the House had to rig the vote and subvert the democratic process in order to prevail. This was a very sad day for democracy in America.”

PEN Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems called the vote a clear indication that the Campaign for Reader Privacy and similar efforts were having impact in Washington: “Even though the Amendment didn¹t pass, this vote is an important benchmark in measuring the growing bipartisan concern for reader privacy in this country. It took a heavy-handed, last-minute maneuver to derail the measure this time around, but we will continue our efforts to ensure that the concerns of writers and readers across the country are heard when Congress takes up the question of whether to extend Section 215 in the next year.”

Section 215 authorizes the FBI to search bookstore and library records without any proof that the person whose records are sought is even suspected of criminal conduct. The search order cannot be challenged because it is issued by a secret court, and contains a gag provision prohibiting a bookseller or librarian from revealing the fact that he or she even received it.

A number of bills have been introduced in Congress that would restore confidentiality protections for bookstore and library records. The Freedom to Read Protection Act (H.R. 1157), which exempts bookstores and libraries from Section 215, was introduced by Representative Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in March 2003 and has drawn 145 cosponsors from both parties. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has, however, refused to hold a hearing on it. I to search bookstore and library records without any proof that the person whose records are sought is even suspected of criminal conduct. The search order cannot be challenged because it is issued by a secret court, and it contains a gag provision prohibiting a bookseller or librarian from revealing the fact that he or she even received it.

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