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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2002
Joyce Meskis is a First Amendment hero. For the past two years, the owner of the storied Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver has been battling a police search warrant seeking information on a suspect's reading habits.
Meskis threw her resources as well as her venerable organizing skills in the way of police efforts to violate her customers' right to read controversial books anonymously. In the court case that followed, more than a dozen civil liberties and book associations joined her suit.
On Monday, freedom and Meskis won a victory when the Colorado Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government must show a very high level of need before it can start rummaging through the records of a bookstore.
Books are the way we expand our mind and society. The Constitution guarantees us access to this universe of ideas free from government intervention and monitoring. Which is why a law enforcement demand for book purchase records is so much more insidious than say, a list of tools bought at a hardware store.
A government's extreme interest in the reading choices of its citizens has never been a historical positive. Nearly all Confucian books were destroyed by the Chinese Prime Minister Li Si in 208 B.C. because they encouraged political and philosophical thought. "Alien" ideas were purged by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels in a massive book burning at the Wilhelm Humboldt University in 1933. And in the 1980s the FBI tried to implement the "Library Awareness Program," in which librarians were told to report to the FBI whenever a patron was interested in "suspicious" material. But the librarians wouldn't have it, and the program never got off the ground.
History teaches us the danger of law enforcement trolling in libraries and bookstores.
For Joyce Meskis, this history came in the form of five drug task force agents who arrived at her bookstore in the spring of 2000, search warrant in hand, demanding to know if a man they believed was running a methamphetamine lab in a Denver trailer park had purchased two books on drug labs. Agents had found the books in the trailer and a mailer from Tattered Cover in the outside garbage. While the police already knew who lived and worked in the trailer, the department said it wanted to know who purchased the drug lab books as additional evidence. Meskis, with the help of her lawyer, held the agents off and then challenged the constitutionality of the warrant.
What happened to Meskis is reminiscent of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's scorched-earth tactics. He had no reservations over treating a bookstore as an evidence cache when he subpoenaed Monica Lewinsky's book purchases from Kramerbooks & Afterwords in Washington, D.C. In the ensuing court fight, a federal court judge noted the chilling effect on the reading public this kind of request could engender and required the government to present a compelling need for the records.
Since then, police have served subpoenas on at least four bookstores looking for customer reading information. In 2000, Amazon.com, the online bookseller, was ordered by Ohio authorities to turn over the list of every person from a large part of the state who had purchased two pornographic audio CDs in order to try and identify a stalker who had sent these to his targets.
In each of these cases so far, police have been prevented from getting the information, in recognition of the special interest a free society has in protecting its reading public.
Despite this encouraging trend, since Sept. 11 and the passage of the USA Patriot Act, libraries have again become hunting grounds for suspicious readers.
Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the Washington D.C. office of the American Library Association calls it "scary." Librarians across the country, she says, have been approached by FBI agents demanding information on their patrons, and under new rules established by the Patriot Act, they have no recourse but to comply.
Any order issued by under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a special court procedure requiring far less proof of suspicion than a normal warrant, must be immediately complied with, according to Sheketoff. Whereas before a library could challenge the legitimacy of a subpoena, the Patriot Act specifically precludes any challenges. It also prohibits the librarian from informing anyone, including the library board, the local mayor or county commission or the patron who is the target of the probe, that information has been sought.
Sheketoff said the requests can be extremely broad, asking for example, for the names of everyone who signed on to a particular computer terminal that day. Abuses, she believes, are inevitable but due to the secrecy they may never see the light of day. "All this is done behind a curtain," Sheketoff says, "and we don't know how thick this curtain is."
Meskis put out one First Amendment fire but another is smoldering. Libraries and bookstores it seems are never free from the menace of the hysteria du jour.