House Defeats Reader Privacy Amendment

Posted on July 13, 2004

Last Thursday the House defeated the Freedom to Read Protection Act proposed by Rep. Bernie Sanders. The goal of Sanders' amendment was to change the portion of the Patriot Act that allows federal authorities to search library and bookstore records during investigations of suspected terrorists. The amendment was defeated in a 210-210 tie. The amendment, facing threat of a Presidential veto, received a majority of votes in the U.S. House when the time for voting expired. However, according to Sanders, the House Republican Leadership then held open the vote twice as long as scheduled, an additional 20 minutes, which allowed Republicans to switch their votes.

After the vote, Sanders 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.�

Sanders� amendment, cosponsored by Reps. Butch Otter (R-ID), John Conyers (D-MI), Ron Paul (R-TX) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), would have prohibited the government from using the federal secret court to gain access to records in libraries and bookstores about Americans� reading habits -� authority that was given the government by the USA Patriot Act.

The amendment also had strong support from readers, writers, book retailers and professionals in the book and publishing industry. Groups representing booksellers, librarians and writers have launched a nationwide effort to obtain one million signatures in support of legislation to amend Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. The groups hope to persuade Congress to restore safeguards for the privacy of bookstore and library records that were eliminated by the Act.

The Campaign for Reader Privacy -- sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association and PEN American Center -- are gathering signatures in bookstores, libraries and on a new website, Over the last year, Republicans, Democrats and Independents have joined to sponsor a number of bills to amend Section 215 of the Patriot Act, including the Freedom to Read Protection Act (H.R. 1157) and the Security and Freedom Ensured (SAFE) Act, S. 1709.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to give the FBI expanded authority to search business records, including the records of bookstores and libraries: the FBI may request the records secretly; it is not required to prove that there is "probable cause" to believe the person whose records are being sought has committed a crime; and the bookseller or librarian who receives an order is prohibited from revealing it to anyone except those whose help is needed to produce the records.

The Bush administration opposes changes in Section 215. Attorney General John Ashcroft has characterized concern over the privacy of bookstore and library records as "hysteria." In his State of the Union message on January 20, President George Bush called on Congress to reauthorize the provisions of the Patriot Act that are due to expire at the end of next year, including Section 215.

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