American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression

ABFFE Sues Justice Department for Data on Patriot Act Subpoenas

The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) has sued the U.S. Department of Justice in an effort to find out how many subpoenas for bookstore and library records have been issued under the U.S.A. Patriot Act. ABFFE joined the ACLU, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Freedom to Read Foundation in asking the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to force the Justice Department to answer questions about the implementation of the broad surveillance powers granted by the Patriot Act. The questions were first presented in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in August. When the Justice Department did not indicate whether it would release the information or not, a lawsuit was filed in October. (To see a copy of the complaint, click here.) On November 13, the plaintiffs filed a request for a preliminary injunction. A hearing is expected soon.

Booksellers and librarians around the country are expressing alarm over the potential chilling effect of court orders issued under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. They fear that bookstore customers and library patrons will not feel free to buy or borrow the books they want if there is a danger that the police may obtain their records.

As the number of subpoenas for customer information has grown in recent years, bookstores and libraries have turned to the courts to protect the privacy of their records. They have won some important victories, but booksellers and librarians may not have the chance to argue their case in court under the Patriot Act. Depending on the wording of the order, they may be required to immediately turn over the records that are being sought. In addition, the Patriot Act authorizes the FBI to search the records of any American if those records are related to a foreign intelligence investigation. The person does not have to be suspected of committing a crime, much less s terrorist act. In addition, there is a gag provision prevents booksellers or librarians from alerting anyone to the fact that they have received an order, making it nearly impossible to determine whether this new power is being abused.

Vermont booksellers and librarians are currently circulating a letter that urges the state’s Congressional delegation to repeal Section 215. To see the letter, click here.

ABFFE has sent a letter to all members of the American Booksellers Association advising them of what to do if they receive a court order under FISA. To see the ABFFE letter, click here.

ABFFE has joined other free expression groups in warning that some of the anti-terrorist measures adopted in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks pose a serious threat to free speech. In April, ABFFE and other members of the Free Expression Network issued a statement at a press briefing on Capitol Hill marking the six-month anniversary of the passage of the PATRIOT Act. To see the FEN statement, click here.

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