Defending the Right Right to Read

Thus far, the answer that they have received has not satisfied them, though.

The Freedom to Read Foundation and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, with support from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, have filed suit accusing the Justice Department of stonewalling them on the FOIA request.

The FOIA request was filed in August 2002, seeking the number of times that federal agents sought to obtain library or bookstore records, though not asking for information about where, when or in what context — information that is considered vital to national security.

To date, though, all that has been provided are completely blacked out documents. Earlier this month, the ACLU filed a summary judgement motion in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

"We're not asking for anything whose release could jeopardize national security," ACLU staff attorney Jameel Jaffer said.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the request because it was still being fought in the court.

In its most recent filing in the case, the Justice Department said it only withheld "a limited, minimal amount of information pursuant to well recognized exemptions of protecting classified national security information."

Contempt for Democracy?

Members of Congress from both parties, including Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, have also criticized the Justice Department for not providing information about how USA Patriot is being implemented.

The Patriot Act has so-called "sunset provisions" that mean it would have to be reapproved by Congress in 2005, and according to the law the Justice Department is required to keep lawmakers informed about how it is using the powers that the law gives it.

Jaffer said he believes there is a pattern in the Justice Department's response to the FOIA request and its reticence with Congress.

"I think it shows a certain amount of contempt for the democratic process," Jaffer said. "It's just impossible for the public to make an informed decision."

Evidence in Books

Bookstore records have been sought in "a half dozen cases" not related to terrorism or the Patriot Act since 1998, when the Starr Commission investigating President Clinton subpoenaed Monica Lewinsky's book purchase records, ABFFE president Chris Finan said.

In a recently resolved case in Denver, the Tattered Cover Book Store fought a subpoena ordering it to turn over a customer's records in the case of a suspected drug dealer.

Police sought the records in March of 2000 because they found a mailing envelope from the bookstore to the suspect and two books on making methamphetamines outside an illegal meth lab. They hoped the store's records would prove the suspect bought the books.

The store's owner took the fight all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled 9-0 last year that the Constitution protects an individual's right to be anonymous in book purchases.

Under the Patriot Act provisions, though, a person being investigated would not have a chance to challenge the examination of reading records, because the person would not know it was happening.

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